There are beautiful moments in the world of aviation. Last weekend I had one. Standing in the semi-dark at Lanseria Airport, I was struck by the fact that a Boeing was in the circuit. It’s always exciting watching or sharing airspace with a Boeing pilot undergoing circuit training. The pure power as the plane does a touch and go. The sound on the ground of a large jet circling the airfield.
On 21st May it was even more beautiful. While the Boeing pilot/s trained, a Blue Moon waxed overhead. Alongside the Moon, Mars glowered in an orange mistiness. It was partly cloudy so I wasn’t sure that the astronomical event would feature during my flight.
A blue moon is when 4 full moons appear in a season instead of 3. Usually a blue moon means the Moon is actually the second full moon in a month. But in a strange twist, Blue moon of 21st May actually means its a full moon that’s appeared for the fourth time in a season. Thus, its an unusual event. Like a Blue Moon. At least astronomers aren’t confused.
Mars in opposition means the earth passes directly between Mars and the Sun and Mars then gleams so brightly in the night that it looks like a bursting star. Its way the brightest thing in the night sky so keep looking up folks, that’s going to last for a few weeks yet.
But as luck would have it, the Moon and Mars sauntered into view as I took off. Later, turning in the general flying area – suddenly – I was alone in the great big sky of Johannesburg. It was like a switch had been flicked. Bright moonlight shone on the northern Magagliesberg Ridge which looms up to a high point of 6000 feet, ready to trip up an unsuspecting night pilot. A single plane was descending into Rand Airport 50km away. A chopper swirled around FNB towers near Soweto. In the north, around Rustenberg and Pilansberg, nothing moved.
Here something special – A night flight during a blue moon & mars in opposition
It’s hard to put into words the exact feeling as you fly in such clear skies on a windless night, with a Blue Moon and Mars in opposition for company. For a fleeting moment I felt a little like what space travellers may feel. Solitude, an alien loneliness, an ache to fly.
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.
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.
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.
It was apparently VMC this morning – although by the time I got to Lanseria at 7.45, the clouds were hanging low over the threshold. Usually ATC declares the conditions instrument, but not today. Still I was staring at length at the cloud base which was 7/8 and looked around 6500. That’s border line for my standard of flying, with 200 hours and no instrument rating.
After refuelling and doing the checks, it was time to fire up ZS-JAB and head off to runway 07 to do the power runup and Too Many Pilots Go Fly In Heaven Early checks. No other training flights and only a Citation on the threshold awaiting departure.
Then it was my turn. Slight wind from 100 and off we go! Wonderful to take to the skies again, it was a month ago that I last flew before going on a trip to Greece. But as I left Lanseria airspace I noticed that the clouds were actually at around 6000. That’s far too low to make aviating safe around the north of Gauteng with the Magalies mountains sticking up all over the place.
I set the VOR for HBV near Hartebeespoort dam and began flying on instruments. The visibility was actually getting worse, and as I flew over HBV I realised that what had started as a borderline condition had worsened.
Decisions. Continue flying on instruments at 5800 to Pilansberg, or call it quits and head back to Lanseria? The little saint on my left shoulder was saying tomorrow is another day, while the little devil on my right was saying “hah, you’ve been in worse, continue!”.
I turned to the west and followed the north ridge of Hartebeespoort dam to a notch, flew over with the terrain warning display on, and descended out of the cloud to the GFA close to the red and white radio mast. The saint had won.
Visibility was so bad, I couldn’t see the South ridge. I reset the VOR for Lanseria and out of the murk, saw the tracking station below. No-one else appeared to be flying in the area. The only calls were coming from Marble Hall.
It’s strange flying towards your airport without a clue about exactly where it is. With a few hours IF training under the belt, I stuck to the VOR and then at a remarkably short 4 nautical miles, suddenly spotted Lanseria to the left.
It was cleared to final, linked up with full flaps, and landed sweetly. No tension, no fear. Another day of decisions and today they were correct. This saturday its back in the air for me as I continue to build hours – and I’ll spend an extra two hour slot doing IF training in the CDC Aviation simulator. Lovely.