Flying at night with a BWPA member

 In News

BWPA member and social media guru, Steph Smith, recently completed her night rating, and was keen to tell us about it.

There is a long standing joke in our family that the women are all witches. My Nan was the traditional witch who flew a broom, my Mum is the modern witch flying a hoover and then me, the conventional witch, who insists upon having wings to fly. Well, now this witch actually has the rating to actually go fly at night!

My night rating began with a Twitter conversation with Matt Lane, an instructor at Brize Norton Flying Club. I had been following Matt throughout my Private Pilot Licence (PPL) and he had offered to help with any aspect of my training if I wanted. A few messages later, we planned in a meeting to discuss doing my night rating at RAF Brize Norton. After a short drive round the airfield from work I found myself at the flying club, greeted by an enthusiastic Matt, armed with a vast quantity of information and a presentation about the training course content. I had expected arranging the training to be something that would have to be planned many weeks in advance, but we found space in both our diaries and aircraft availability for two weeks later.

My first lesson was in mid-November, before this my only night flights had been on a commercial flight. Starting with a full ground briefing of what to expect from the course and the differences of flying from a controlled RAF base to the casual general aviation airfields that I am accustomed to. Doing an aircraft walkaround inspection by flashlight is second nature to me after years of working as an aircraft engineer, outside in all weather conditions and all hours of the day, so the pre-flight checks were a breeze. The first real surprise came before I had even started the engine of the PA28 we would be flying, an Airbus A400M taxied straight past us! I may work on the A400M and know large they are, but until that moment being sat in a PA28 cockpit staring up at the monster in front of us I had not fully appreciated the sheer size of it.

The radio took a little getting used to, speaking with the ground frequency for start up then changing to tower for taxi and departure clearance, with a third frequency radar to change to for leaving the Brize zone. Matt supplied me with a crib sheet for learning the required radio patter and covered the majority of the radio for the first lesson so I could get to grips with it.

The actual flying seemed a lot easier than I had expected. Taking off relied purely on the attitude indicator for the first few hundred feet to show me if I had the correct climb angle, all while hearing the little blips in my headset of the radar picking up our PA28. Prior to flying from Brize, I had never landed using precision approach path indicators (PAPIs) before, as flying mostly from grass strips means I have never come across them, so this was new experience for me too. I was not sure what to expect on my first night landing, with such a wide runway to land on and so many lights to distract me, however, it all went smoothly. The only real difference landing at night was the gradual reduction of power whilst pulling back on the control column.

To prepare me for my first night solo flight, it was necessary to go through some emergency and abnormal procedures. There was a series of circuits and landings flown where every time air traffic control (ATC) would change the available runway lighting configuration, from turning the PAPIs off to minimal runway lighting without the run-in lights. After tweeting about the session with lights being turned on and off, I found out another Twitter friend was the Air Traffic Control Officer controlling the lighting control panel that night.

My solo came as a total surprise as I thought we were done for the night, but as I taxied back to the flying club Matt declared he was getting out so I could have a couple circuits to myself. ATC asked what lights I would like for my flight, so I told them I would like the airfield lit up like a Christmas tree! I can honestly say the night solo is the most enjoyable first solo I have achieved to date. On the way home I called my Mum to tell her all about it, she was absolutely horrified at the thought! After 24 years of testing her nerves, with me flying everything I can get my hands on, I think I finally found her breaking point.

Solo time!

The views while night flying were stunning, with calm, clear nights meaning I could see for miles. Navigating at night was the hardest part for me, being so heavily reliant on moving maps and landmark features like towns and airfields becoming harder to identify than during the day. My night cross country route took us from Brize Norton to Wellesbourne to Gloucester and back to Brize Norton, with lots of small heading corrections to account for the changing wind and lack of external visual cues to drifting off track.

The amount of traffic I encountered during my training became comical, with Matt saying he could not recall anyone else having to orbit or hold for so many aircraft. Across the three nights of training I encountered: a pair of Hercules C130Js formation flying, a Typhoon and multiple A330s returning on instrument approaches, which meant that I had to orbit a village on the downwind leg.

Finishing this training meant I met the requirements to enable me to revalidate my single engine piston rating as well. The final session was on one of the really cold nights in December and I left poor Matt stood out in -3C supervising my solo circuits. The last circuit was delayed by yet another A330 being put ahead of me to land!

I completed my night rating over three sessions in a month, with five hours and ten minutes of flight time – a touch over the five hour requirement – and with only one weather cancellation.

Night rating complete!

Brize Norton Flying Club are happy to offer training to BWPA members, including PPL, Instrument Rating, and Night Rating. Reach out to them online for any queries

Steph Smith

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