Glorious Sweet Lightning Illuminated Night Rating

It was a moonless night.  The lightning flickered south of Johannesburg and revealed the outline of cumulonimbus which had formed 100 kilometres away, silhouetted and menacing.  But even more menacing was the job at hand.  Pass my night rating test.  It was going to be a sweaty affair.  And before your dark little imaginations run wild at the combination of sweaty & affair, let’s just say it would be 1.3 hours of intense concentration, swooping vertigo and un-tried glide approaches from overhead Lanseria airfield.

Lanseria at Night Courtesy of Aeronav, where I wrote my Theory Exam in November.
Lanseria at Night Courtesy of Aeronav, where I wrote my Theory Exam in November.

In a nutshell,  I passed but you need to understand in this business, its not a boast.

It’s like surviving a marathon. Your body aches.  Your mind races.

There were moments where things weren’t as accurate as I would have liked,  and others where I had to repeat an intersection of a radio beacon.  But all-in-all, things progressed well.  Peter Armitage,  the Grade II instructor, was conducting the test after Steve Wide had spent a few hours coaching me on the intricacies of flying an aeroplane at night.

From tight 45º turns,  full panel failure in the dark (when all  instruments are switched off and you fly listening to the sound of the engine and watching the position of the horizon), electric fire simulation and failure of all systems,  stalls, dives, recovery from unusual attitude (close eyes, instructor puts plane into some kind of position wings down or up – open eyes and recover quickly), to landing without lights and PAPI switched off at Lanseria, it was tough folks.

Skills Test For a Night-Rating. CA 61-10.4
Skills Test For a Night-Rating. CA 61-10.4

The best moment by far was the glide approach from 2000 feet above Lanseria.  It was around 21h30 local and a Kulula flight was approaching runway 07.  We were overhead the airfield and Peter said “How do you feel about a glide approach from here?”

Being able to glide a plane at night from that position to safety on an airfield would be one of the big tests of the evening.  “I would like to try.”

After clearing the exercise with the ATC,  Peter pulled the power.  We were now gliding 2000 Above Ground Level or AGL and I couldn’t see Lanseria.  It was directly below.   What I could see was the Kulula Airbus pass below on final approach.  More lights twinkled across Joburg, and in the distance to the South East a commercial flight could be seen heading to OR Tambo at around 10 000 feet.  Lightning continued to brighten the clouds to our South, a real attention grabber in the dark.  I turned to the West and the airfield appeared off the right wing.

The plane was gliding at the best glide speed, 99 knots.    As the vastly experienced pilot Russell Donaldson used to snort in derision,  just glide at 100, its easier to read.  Cirrus SR 20 registration ZS-JAB was descending at around 500 feet a minute.  In around 4 minutes we’d be on the ground.  I turned base leg,  the threshold was now off the right wing. In other words,  the runway was 90º to the plane to our right.  Turning further I noticed the wind had shifted.  It was all over the place last night.  19 knots from the North, then 10 knots from the South West as I began the descent.  But as we sank it reversed!  Nine knots from the north again.  I had to change course and there the runway appeared off the nose.  Directly in line.


We were perfectly set up.  Descending smack-bang on 97 knots.  I had taken 50º of flaps, and waited to be sure we’d make the airfield before applying full flap.   As soon as you go full, the drag is massive and air speed bleeds off.  So I wanted to make sure we’d glide all the way to the airfield.

Full flaps, over the threshold at the specified 78 knots and landed.

But there’s no time to pat yourself on the back in aviation.   We hadn’t finished in the circuit yet.

Immediately up flaps 50º, wait for speed to reach rotate at 70 knots and off we went to conduct 3 more landings in different configurations, including full panel failure, all landing lights off,  and the PAPI guidance off on request to ATC.

Peter debriefed me later clearing up a few bits of detail.  He signed my log book and stamped the paperwork.

I was tired but happy.  Sweaty, tough, beautiful.  Nothing makes you more happy to be aviating than an evening almost alone in the air with the flash-bang might of a storm far enough away to merely be a fireworks display than a life threatening event.

Now I trot off to the CAA and hand in the test, along with my license and logbook.  If they’re happy,  the night rating comes into being for all planes I’m rated to fly.  The Maule MX7, Rapid Sabre, Cessna 172 and Cirrus SR20.


Stuttering Engines & A Presidential Cockpit

Last night my engine stuttered.  First it wouldn’t start.  Ok, mostly because Cirrus’s fuel injected Continental 6 cylinder engine is notoriously difficult to get going when its hot.  Its cranky.  Finally ZS-JAB roared into life and I was ready for the cross-country.  Steve was about to throw a number of night aviation curve balls at me, and I was nervous.  Then we rolled to Alpha 2 taxi way at Lanseria to conduct engine power ups and .. trouble.  During power checks the engine wouldn’t idle properly, it was coughing and wheezing.  That’s a major problem.  For when you’re landing the engine has to be idling like a purring kitty so that if a fox leaps out of the night bush you can gun the throttle and jump the brute.

But if the engine dies as you’re coming in to land, its nasty. Particularly when its as black as the ace of spades. Steve and I agreed it wasn’t safe to take off and we headed back to Hangarland. But there is a point to this pontificating.

During inspection, I noticed the left fuel tank was reading almost empty.  But the tank was full to the brim.  By now we all know the mantra about accidents happening when 3 things go wrong simultaneously.  Last night I had two out of three.  Earlier visual inspection of the fuel gauge (which often has issues) led us to conclude that the gauge was faulty.  Discomforting, but not terminal.

However a stuttering engine that’s trying to idle is a possible catastrophe waiting to happen.

This got me thinking about reports at the weekend about a training school at Heidelberg airport where questions have begun to surface about how effectively its operating.  What would have happened at other aviation institutions?  What would instructors have done at Vukani Aviation had they found their engine stuttering at 18h20 Zulu?

Heidelberg Airfield. Location of SA Flight Training Academy. SAFTA
Heidelberg Airfield. Location of SA Flight Training Academy. SAFTA

The Sunday Times reported this week that a probe has been launched by the Civil Aviation Authority into the South African Flight Training Academy, or SAFTA.  It’s owned by Nhlanhla Dube who has apparently called himself “the commander of the Presidential jet”.   I thought the president was the commander of the jet.  Dube may or may not be the captain of the presidential jet.  The Sunday Times says not.

But I digress.  Dube has received a whacking R1.2m per previously disadvantaged trainee – R66m for 59 would-be pilots.


Dube owns Vukani aviation under which SAFTA reclines.  He was the winner of the aviation lottery.  The National Skills Fund’s New Growth Path tender worth an eye-watering  R66-million.  Vukani scooped another R12-million from the Transport Education and Training Authority to train another 12 pilots.  Whooo, nice.  Who says there’s no money in aviation?

It’s taken 2 years for around a third of Vukani’s trainees to receive their Comm License.  That’s not too bad despite pundits suggesting that its dismal.  Most pilots I know have taken at least that long to go from their first day through PPL to CPL – in fact most take around 3 years because it costs so much and they need to work their way between flights.  Admittedly, these trainees are being fully funded by Ma & Pa taxpayer as opposed to everyone else.   Which means they should be in the air 6 days a week. Which means they should be getting their Comm licenses a tad quicker than you or me.

But the big issue is flight instructors.  Many have reportedly left his school after complaining about a number of issues.   One involved maintenance.  You don’t muck with maintenance.

Dube is fighting back, calling the reports the work of  “people opposed to transformation”. Like the people at the CAA apparently.   They’re also investigating an incident last week where one of Vukani’s Cessna’s ended up in a vegetable patch close to the runway at Heidelberg.

No biggie, folks.  I have personal experience of a load of incidents like this.  It’s part of learning to fly.  At least the emergency landing was made successfully too, which indicates correct training.   Then there’s the mutterings about his pilots failing to be hired by SAA or SA Express.  But that’s a bit disingenuous.  Most people need around 5 years to get close to the hours required to sit in the 1st Officers seat.


However be sure of one thing:  If the s0-called non transformed CAA finds that Dube, who didn’t own an aviation company before the initial tender, is found to be deficient in his operations,  his license will be either suspended or terminated.

Links to the president’s cockpit or not.  Will Vukani’s obvious links to the cash-dispensary known as government lead to the CAA being de-clawed?  Hope not.

Finally the crux of this biscuit is:

I hope Dube et al continue to opt out of flying when faced with a stuttering engine at 18h20 Zulu.


A note about safety – how performance dipped 40% this summer.

The CAA has distributed a note from the commissioner Poppy Khoza warning about the rate of accidents at the start of 2014.  Twelve accidents in January alone, and 10 in February – 20 people are dead both crew and pax. While I read the page feeling somewhat disturbed,  there was something in the public relations exercise that was pretty clear.  Are the plethora of training institutions operating out of smaller airfields featuring low hour instructors?  Or is the latest crop of pilots  gung ho? Are we now producing pilots who’re useless?

Too busy trying to survive to be Gung Ho. A lesson from history.  WWII female pilots.
Too busy trying to survive to be Gung Ho. A lesson from history. WWII female pilots.

Or something instrinsic to all of our experiences – the weather? We have had by all accounts an extremely  hot and dry summer.  In fact, in parts of the north west of South Africa,  a drought.  That may have all ended with the low pressure system overhead right now,  however for most of this Summer it has been blazing.  And many  of the incidents have occured at altitude.

In some cases,  performance levels of aircraft have been reduced by almost 40%. CDC aviation for example, where I fly the Cirrus,  issued a safety update to all pilots – caution.  Hot and High.

The density altitude was, on some days,  over 8500 feet!  The ground roll doubled as Lanseria is already fairly high at 4400.   The Cirrus 20 is no plane to muck around in when it comes to peformance and retardation. Combine that with a propensity to fly slow and low,  and disaster awaits.  Particularly in tight turns.  Particularly taking off and landing.  And that’s where, as usual,  most of these incidents this year have taken place.

Poppy is also fingering another fact.  The majority of accidents since 2006 feature pilots with fewer than 500 hours. That be me. But hold on.. lets take a closer look at a few more bits of data.  The CAA says its now going to concentrate on categories of pilot responsible for most accidents.  Many would say there’s overwhelming evidence to say the category of pilot who breaks the rules would be at the top of the list.

Really, really hot and extremely high.  Time for the turbo.
The Atacama. Really, really hot and well, extremely high. Time for the turbo.

Are you aware of the temperature and the reduced pressure and density altitude?  Do you know what that’s going to do to your aircraft?  Particularly in a turn?  What’s the new stall speed? The CAA says its going to look at some sort of induction programme for trainee pilots.  Well, sounds good.  But who’s going to induct? There aren’t enough CAA officials to inspect runways, let alone go through the thousands of would-be trainee pilots.   Who gets to induct the inductees?  Is there an FAA process?  Apparently yes. But back to our accident rate.

Thanks to the US Coast Guard for this pic of the CAPS system for Cirrus working.
Thanks to the US Coast Guard for this pic of the CAPS system for Cirrus working.  It may have been hot, but it wasn’t high.

Still, the fact remains – in early 2014 aviators took themselves out at the greatest rate in a decade.  No escape from that cruel reality. Are pilots becoming glorified pen-pushers who are forced to spend more of their cash paying for books and the ever-more-expensive exams than actually flying an aeroplane? Take the real cost of flying since 2009.  While income levels have largely languished, the cost of av gas has climbed from under R8.00 to R18.47 per litre.  That’s more than 200%.  Which means for pilots who aren’t part of SAA’s glorified BEE scheme arnd receive the taxpayers subsidy or don’t have mommy and daddy’s millions, its tough to put in the bare minimum which should be around two hours a week. And when the temperature rises above 32 and you’re now taking off from the African version of the Alps – beware.