Night flying

Flying at night (as a pilot) is a very different thing to flying during the day. Its a pretty amazing thing to do.

Its a requirement that you have performed at least three night takeoffs and landings in the preceding 90 days before taking passengers up at night, and I plan to do exactly that later this week.

So, last night, I flew out to Renmark late in the afternoon, to undertake some night circuit practice in order to get myself ‘night current’ again.

Waiting for darkness before going for a night circuit session at Renmark

Waiting for darkness before going for a night circuit session at Renmark

It turned out to be a relatively challenging night to do this, because of a strong and nearly 90 degree crosswind with a substantial shear between circuit height (where it was reading almost 30 knots on the aircraft instruments) down to ground level (where it was about 8-10 knots).

Its also an interesting mental exercise, as you rotate and fly away from the runway at night in a country location like this (with a lack of local lighting other than the runway). The lights of the runway slip away behind you and then it is just… black.


Just you and the glowing instrument panel in front of you – and darkness all around outside the windows.

That panel is reminding you of something at this point, and it is simply this:

You’d better start flying using the instruments now – or you’ll die.

You have to make the conscious switch to instrument-flight mode, a transition to ‘flying the video game’, instead of looking out of the window as your primary reference.

(If you are curious, this Wikipedia page explains a number of the reasons why not transitioning to instruments will kill you in this situation)

The training mnemonic, and I always say it aloud as reinforcement, is ‘onto the clocks’ – i.e. fly the instruments – right now.

People have died because they failed to make that decision, particularly when departing  runways in country areas (like Renmark) and heading out ‘into the black’. These environments lack the huge (and easy) visual reference obtained from the massive field of lights that characterises flying in built-up areas like Adelaide.

Flying circuits in this environment gets more complicated in a strong crosswind because you’re having to undertake the mental exercise to change your heading and circuit leg timing appropriately in order to offset the effects of that wind.

For the first half of each circuit at night, you are doing that ‘blind’ (i.e. only on the instruments, without sight of the runway or any other ground visual references), until you’ve turned all the way around to the downwind leg.

On the downwind leg, you look out at the runway – locate the runway lights, and let your brain switch back into part-visual-part-instrument mode again as you obtain a visual reference to locate yourself properly in the circuit pattern and make any further adjustments needed.

The PC12 is an awesome aircraft to fly, and crosswind circuits like this are a case in point. This plane handles wonderfully well in a crosswind, and it feels amazingly agile for such a big beast.

Thats a good thing, because that wind shear on descent on final last night was entertaining, in terms of needing to continually adjust for it to maintain a good approach into the runway.

Three circuits like this, in challenging crosswind/wind shear conditions, at night, is a fair old workout for the brain – but also a wonderful one. It is intensely satisfying to ‘nail’ circuits under these conditions.

Landing after those circuits, it was time to stretch the legs and enjoy the quiet night at Renmark for a little while, before flying home again to Adelaide, enjoying the fruits of that labour in the cruise home.

In particular, the approach back into Adelaide on a clear but dark night (as this was) is just excellent.

Watching the city lights appear in the distance and gradually open up to a vista of streets laid out under you is wonderful. The plane is so high that there is very little direct sense of motion – it feels like you’re just floating motionless in space, despite the fact that you’re moving forward at over 500 kilometres per hour.

I was cleared in via Willunga before a right turn onto a straight-in final for runway 05 at Adelaide.

I came in on final approach through yet another roaring crosswind – even more so than at Renmark. This resulted in the aircraft gently helicoptering down toward the runway with the nose pointed way out to the right against the crosswind.

Landing around 10.30pm and taxing past the main terminal at Adelaide, the scene that greeted me was of a row of passenger jets in almost every gate, all lined up ready for the morning rush hour.

What a brilliant evening to be flying. What a privilege to be able to do so.