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Beyond the PPL: Night Rating

PUBLISHED: 17:23 24 October 2018 | UPDATED: 17:24 24 October 2018

EPSON DSC Picture

EPSON DSC Picture

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Extend your hours of operation with a journey into night − the rating can be gained in as little as five hours and, if you’re lucky with the weather, three evenings of dual and solo flying | Words: Tony Cutty

I can clearly remember when I first considered doing a night rating. The inspiration came from one of those moments standing in my garden at home in the dark, looking up at the brightly moonlit cumulus clouds above, and thinking, “I would love to fly up there in that sky!”

So was born the idea of training for the first additional rating to my PPL in twenty-plus years of flying. I’m an experienced daytime flyer, but a novice night-rated pilot. Here are my early impressions of what it’s like and what’s involved.

While seriously considering the night rating, I’d chatted with people at my flying school (Aviation South West, at Exeter) who had given me the impression that it was a whole lot of fun and not too hard. Not that I’m afraid of a challenge but I’m slightly prone to motion sickness in cars, and was worried that the lack of visual cues at night might have the same effect.

What if I didn’t like it? Or got disorientated? There was quite a bit of ‘shall I, shan’t I?’ but finally I organised a night trial lesson with Ollie, one of our instructors. I figured twenty minutes or so would give me a taster...

Well − oh my goodness! I was completely hooked. What an experience! If you’ve never flown at night in a light aircraft, please let me recommend that you try it at least once.

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As this was essentially a trial lesson, I wanted to try to fly the aeroplane for as much of the flight as possible, maybe even the entire flight from brakes off to shutdown, but allowing that I had never flown at night before.

Walking out to the PA-38 Tomahawk on Exeter’s south apron in the dwindling twilight, Ollie gave me a briefing on some important differences between flying at night and flying in daylight, and I asked a few questions while we got strapped in and waited for it to get properly dark. Night flying is still visual flying, but with a greater dependence on instruments. It’s sort of like a halfway house between day visual flying and IMC flying.

The first thing I noticed was that it was really hard to read my checklist in the darkness, even with the airport buildings only a couple of hundred yards away being brightly lit up like Colditz Castle. I had brought a small torch and used it, but it seemed very bright and I made a mental note that next time I would put a red filter on it to avoid loss of night vision. Sweet wrappers might work…

Engine start as normal, call the Tower for clearance, and then taxi to Hold Charlie for Runway 26 and perform my checks there. The taxiways are lit with blue lights at the edges and/or green lights down the centreline, and there are two bright yellow flashing lights to mark the holding point. Taxying wasn’t all that difficult, although I did notice a tendency to over-control on the steering because of the lack of visual references.

But essentially it was no harder than driving a car at night. Lining up on the runway, though, was a bit different because there were few visual cues apart from the lines on the tarmac. We were quickly cleared for takeoff and off we went.

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The takeoff itself was straightforward, not all that different from a daylight one, but I think I would have found it hard in a crosswind, again because of the lack of visual cues. You take these for granted in daylight, because everything is visible. At night the default setting is that absolutely everything is black, everywhere, unless it’s a city or a road or something else with lights on it, like a radio mast or something.

But the wind was calm and it was a nice fine, quiet night weather-wise, just perfect for a night air experience flight.

The feeling was quite surreal as the aeroplane lifted herself off at 65kt and I began the climb out, just like I would in daylight but relying on the instruments to maintain the correct airspeed and attitude. I noticed that the transition to instruments was completely natural for me as I always keep a good eye on the airspeed during the climbout anyway.

Checking the VSI, altimeter, turn coordinator and oil Ts and Ps is second nature; I was surprised how natural it was and how much more noticeable it was that straightaway I was partially relying on the instruments and partially on the view out of the window, which was spectacular and breathtaking.

The most striking feature is the blackness. You’d be amazed just how much of the country is... well, just black at night. The bright lights of Exeter and its surrounding towns, and the moving car lights on the nearby M5 motorway, are continents, islands and streams of colour against a totally dark background.

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The towns are huge pools of golden light studded with white, red and green gems, with the occasional sparkle of sapphire blue emergency vehicle lights. The motorway is a twin river of ruby tail lights and diamond-white headlights, flowing between riverbanks of golden street lights.

It’s rush hour so the roads are busy and easily visible, even where there are no long necklaces of street lights, and the feeling is like climbing up into a huge black velvet coal sack, but with all these islands and rivers of flowing colour lighting up the features on the ground. Which… is just black.

Unlike the familar still photos of cities from the air at night, in reality everything is living and moving and flowing down there, and this life on the ground is much more apparent at night than in daylight. Car lights, the ever-changing aspect of the street lights, illuminated towns sliding under the wings−everything is sparkling and refulgent in three dimensions of moving perspective. And it’s absolutely glorious.

Fortunately, I know the geography of the local area really well so am not fazed by thinking “where am I?” That’s one major thing I don’t need to worry about tonight. It’s all quite beautiful, indeed magical; there’s no turbulence and the air is clear. Ollie, who has of course flown many times at night, nevertheless still remarks on how much he loves night flying. And now I can understand why. It’s magnificent. I’m seeing the world tonight in an entirely different way from how it looked during the previous week’s daylight sortie.

The feeling is almost unreal, as if I’m not really flying but in a flight simulator or something. The air is smooth and the aeroplane, once trimmed, basically flies herself, all I need to do is to look out at the view and occasionally check the instruments for height, heading and speed.

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Small deviations in bank angle are easily spotted and corrected. I know I’m above the minimum safe altitude so I’m not going to run into anything. Other aircraft are easy to spot as they have flashing lights on them, even if they have no relative motion with respect to my aeroplane. In a lot of ways, despite the lack of a visual horizon reference, this is much easier than flying in daylight.

It’s quite the paradox, actually. I wondered why it didn’t worry me that I couldn’t really see where I was going, blindly belting headlong into pitch darkness at speeds getting on for a hundred miles an hour. Later I realised that this is where it’s not like night driving in a car.

As long as you know you’re at a safe height and the aeroplane is set up correctly, there’s simply nothing to run into apart from other aircraft, which are festooned with flashing lights. No lampposts, pets, pedestrians, dawdling or speeding cars. It takes some getting used to, just believing there’s only clear air in front of you. We do it in daylight, of course, but then we can actually see that it’s true. At night, you’ve almost got to believe that what you can’t see can’t hurt you, in a manner of speaking.

I notice that I am flying the aeroplane much more precisely and gently, instinctively being careful not to risk disorientation by abrupt attitude changes, and paying regular attention to the instruments and what the aeroplane is doing. Of course it’s always important to keep ahead of the aircraft, to be proactive rather than reactive, so I am concentrating hard and thinking well ahead because I get the distinct feeling that at night it is so much more vital to be ahead of your game.

I decided in advance that any tendency of the aeroplane to drift off course or change its attitude has to be picked up and acted upon early so that it does not ‘develop’, and this strategy seems to work. Keeping the aeroplane in trim goes a long way towards keeping things nice and stable. I would say that this is probably the most precise flying I have done in a long while. The motion sickness isn’t a problem and I have decided that this night flying thing really is for me.

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Coming back towards the airport, Ollie points out landmarks that will be useful for me when trying to find it by myself. How does one lose a huge field with a 2,064-metre runway? At night, quite easily, actually! But the airport does indeed appear as advertised, and I position for a left-hand downwind join for Runway 26. Doing everything deliberately, carefully and precisely, I fly a very nice downwind leg in all this blackness.

Ollie shows me several illuminated ground features which are available to help me. Because I don’t have the daylight visual cues I need to fly an accurate circuit and I keep a close eye on my ASI, VSI, DI and altimeter, as well as the RPM gauge, to make sure that the aeroplane is where it should be, when it should be. Furthermore, I plan on flying the exact V-speeds that the aeroplane needs to be flown at in the different parts of the circuit.

Downwind checks complete I turn base and the runway approach lights gradually become more visible as a dim string of yellow dots as I reduce power and ‘dirty up’ the aircraft. Turning onto final, the approach lights, PAPIs and flarepath are lit up gloriously – I have done dusk flarepath landings before, so the sight is familiar – but in between the flarepath lights, the runway surface itself is totally black.

I’d been briefed by Ollie on when to flare; apparently it’s when the runway lights appear to be coming up around my ears. So at that point I flare and prepare to hold off, but the aeroplane touches down straightaway for what is actually a real greaser of a landing−almost perfect, except that it was pure fluke. I didn’t expect the aircraft to land so soon, there was no hold-off.

My fault, apparently, was to look at the tarmac lit by the landing light; a common mistake, I’m told, during early night flights and easily understood. You want to look where you can see but the solution is to look well ahead to the red lights marking the far end of the runway. In this way, you get a much better perspective of the main flarepath lights as they move upwards in your peripheral vision−something for me to remember next time.

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And that was it, apart from taxying back to the apron. I was pleasantly surprised to realise that, in the event, I had actually flown the entire sortie myself, more or less unaided (with the exception of a few minutes where Ollie took control so I could take some photos), and the whole flight was surprisingly easy, if a little surreal.

Easy or not, the much more precise flying required at night will do nothing but good for my flying technique.

And so I signed up for the course. To add the night rating to your licence, several training elements are required. There are no written exams or flight tests; you simply need to have fulfilled the following for the rating to be granted:

- all required ground school

- minimum of five hours’ flying at night, including at least three hours’ dual instruction

- at least one dual night cross-country flight of at least 50km (27nm), which can be part of the three hours’ -dual instruction

- at least five solo night takeoffs and five solo full-stop landings (not touch-and-goes)

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Depending on your chosen airfield’s opening hours and the time of year, you can anticipate a minimum of three, but more probably four or five, evenings of flying.

It took me five evenings over about twelve days (due, of course, to weather) in November, not including the ‘trial lesson’.

There are things to learn like the differences between night and day flying and navigation, emergencies unique to night flying (like runway lights failure, for instance, or landing light failure), critical emergencies like panel light failure or even total electrical failure, and the special factors involved with night diversions. All great fun, challenging, and therefore guaranteed to sharpen all your flying skills, not just those you use at night.

Once you’ve got the night rating, it’s valid for the duration of your licence; you don’t need to revalidate it. You are allowed to fly solo at night whenever you like, but to carry passengers at least one of your minimum three takeoffs and landings in the previous ninety days has to have been at night.

There are a few safety issues to consider when flying at night, and factors that can make it harder to fly safely. Firstly, of course, night flying usually happens once the clocks go back, so after October and therefore in the generally mucky weather we get at that time of year.

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This means that sometimes it can be hard to get the weather windows that you need. Night flying is performed as VFR flight but using IFR rules for cloud and ground separation, so you need better weather minima than an equivalent daylight flight. Your weather briefing therefore needs to be much more thorough and careful than it would be for daylight, and you might find that you can’t go flying at night in conditions that would be perfectly acceptable by day.

I’d say the weather briefing is probably the most important part of your pre-flight preparation. Thorough study of the en route weather for both your intended route and alternate aerodromes, coupled with a close look at the latest TAFs and METARs for departure, arrival and diversion airfields, is essential.

And, once airborne, awareness of the weather needs to take up more of your thinking time: looking out for icing conditions, deteriorating cloudbase and/or visibility etc. Be ready and willing to turn back or divert if necessary; pressing on regardless has no place in night flying!

Secondly, you need an illuminated runway to land on, so your diversion/alternate airfields all need to have such facilities. At Exeter the nearest alternates are Cardiff at 40nm (albeit with a feet-wet stretch over the Bristol Channel), Bristol at 47nm, Bournemouth at 60nm and Newquay at 63nm. For that reason, you need to carry plenty of fuel.

Much of safe navigation at night involves flying at a height where you know you’re not going to run into anything, so you have to decide on an MSA and stick to it; if the en route cloud would be too low for safe terrain separation, don’t plan to divert to that airfield.

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This must be considered even if you are just planning on staying in the circuit, because if someone goes and prangs an airliner onto your runway, they’ll shut up shop and you will have no option but to divert. Although alternate airfield planning should be in all good flight planning it’s even more important at night because you can’t simply carry out a precautionary landing in a field somewhere, like you could in daylight.

That brings me to my third disadvantage of night flying, for me the biggest one. It’s this. If the hamster dies and your propeller stops turning, and you need to perform a forced landing, your options are pretty limited.

As the land is an ocean of black, you can’t see useable fields like you can in daylight. Moonlight might be different, but all my night flying so far has been done around the time of the new moon, or under an overcast. Even when the moon is up I wouldn’t bank on it.

The textbook more or less simply says ‘do your best’, which is not particularly helpful. It talks about maybe being able to see a little with the landing light, and touching down at as low a speed as possible with full flap, which I suppose will improve your chances.

One wag said to me the other day that as you glide down, you should switch on your landing light to see what you can see. If you don’t like what you see, switch it back off again!

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The textbook also says things like make sure there’s enough fuel, and that you manage it properly; in other words, avoid engine failure in the first place. Perform a proper inspection before departure (which you should anyway).

Other things suggested include ‘try restarting the engine, hopefully it should fire if you have the fuel on’. I have no idea why this would work better at night than in daylight! I suppose you do have a little more time to try restarting because you don’t really have a circuit to plan and fly, as you would have if you were going into a field you could see. Where I live (near the sea) there’s also the chance of ditching close inshore or landing on a beach.

And there are always roads if they’re not too busy (but I didn’t tell you that). So, keep a really good eye on your engine and aircraft condition, fuel state, tank switching, and listen carefully to the engine note. At the first sign of trouble, you need to be ready to head for the nearest usable airfield.

On the whole, I think that the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages though. For one thing, it’s tremendous fun, and nowhere near as difficult as you might think. If you need to get home from a distant airfield and wouldn’t make it back before nightfall, the night rating removes that curfew and gives you so much more flexibility: you can arrive after dark (as long as your destination is still open and has runway lights) and don’t need to rush your planning.

The view is magnificent; it has a beauty all of its own. And night flying really sharpens your flying skills. For example, should you inadvertently fly into cloud during the day, you will be far more likely to be able to perform your escape turn safely on instruments, because you will already be more used to using your instruments to help you stay the right way up.

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The night rating provides several ‘firsts’ for your logbook: first night flight, first night navex, first night solo, then first solo night cross-country, first night flight carrying passengers and so on. And−if this sort of thing appeals to you − there’s also the kudos. Being able to fly at night is a pretty neat thing to be able to do!

An inexpensive rating

Night flying is very different from daylight flying. You learn a whole new set of skills, it’s challenging, and yet it’s also not difficult, and it’s totally beautiful in its own right. Go and have a night trial lesson.

Visit some flying schools, get prices and ask questions: does the price include landing fees; what aircraft type is used (I would recommend training on a familiar aircraft); what about VAT? A rough price for the night rating in a Cessna 152 or PA-38 is somewhere between £800-£1,000 including VAT.

Then you’ll need to get your licence updated with your shiny new rating, for which the CAA charges £124 at the time of writing. It’s probably the cheapest add-on rating you can do, one of the most useful, and I can recommend it as being excellent in terms of pure enjoyment, both during and after your training.

Definitely worth a go. And the CAA got my licences (I have both an EASA and a CAA PPL) back to me within five working days.

Outside my local supermarket the other evening, I looked up into the empty black sky above all the bustle and traffic and thought to myself, “Crumbs, now I can fly in that!” And, hopefully I’m going to be doing a lot more of it over the next few months.

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