Prima Nocta

By lex, on October 7th, 2011

It’s not like I don’t like flying at night. After all, my logbook reflects over 800 hours of nighttime operations over the last three decades or so. The air tends to be less turbulent when the sun goes down. Traffic is easier to see and avoid. And it’s important to have the capability to fly as and when the mission requires it.

It’s just that, over the last ten years or so, the mission hasn’t required it. There was no dogfighting to be had in the front seat of a 150 HP Varga at night. And any cross-countries that I needed to take tended to neatly fit into the daylight hours. Especially in that there are significant terrain variances in the Sandy Eggo area, and the potential to blunder into something immovable is non-trivial, especially when you can’t be bothered to file a flight plan that takes into account minimum obstacle clearance altitudes for en route legs, and minimum sector altitudes when in or about an airport. Nor was the equipment that I’ve been flying recently equipped with radar altimeters, and – even when equipped with terrain aware GPS devices – did they necessarily have the kinematic potential to climb above that red blotch on the display. Visual flight rules requires the airman to see and avoid. Fundamentally, you can’t avoid what you can’t see.

But the new gig both desires and requires night flying. On account of the Navy that we support is quite expert at it, and fiercely desires to become more so. In the interview process, they didn’t ask when my last night flight was. Nor did I, unprompted, tell.

Don’t ask, don’t tell. Anyone can play.

So, a couple of nights ago – maybe 1.1 hours after the minimum ten hours required by policy – your host was scheduled for his first night flight in, oh: Quite some while.

As such things go, it wasn’t so very bad. In the fleet we’d call it a “pinkie”, a day take-off and sortie followed by a night(ish) landing. We got out to the range, did our deeds, felt a little sorry for the opposition forces facing the back end of the boat when all was said and done, and headed back to the base. The sun tickling the horizon on the way.

I was a little tense, actually. It’s one thing to transition from low wing four-bangers that cruise at 110 MPH to delta-winged, afterburning fighters that don’t get airborne until 190 knots. It’s one thing to cross the fence at 80 MPH in a 1200 pound airplane trying to squeak her on, and another to cross the fence at 190 kts, feeling for the runway as the runway remaining markers go by and hoping against hope that the drag chute remains obedient to its duty when the short field arresting gear flashes by. It’s a third thing entirely to do it at night.

And worse still when you’ve lost your attitude references.

For those who aren’t aware, the primary instrument in conditions of reduced visibility, night or in the weather, say, is the artificial horizon. It’s meant to replicate the actual horizon, which is ordinarily far superior so long as you can see it. It tells you what way is up, and which is down, which helps you maintain a safe altitude. It tells you whether the wings are level, which keeps you on your assigned heading. When cross referenced with the altimeter, vertical speed indicator and compass card, the attitude indicator keeps you safely away from the edges of the sky and flying more or less where you’re supposed to be going, two qualities of essential value to any instrument rated aviator.

The Kfir has two such instruments, a primary display which is about the size of an orange and centrally located for easy viewing, and a back-up indicator stowed in an inconvenient place. The latter is the so-called “peanut” gyro, on account of its diminutive size. Just as the sun finally bade farewell, I noticed an “off flag” on the primary display, and a decided lack of back-lighting on the peanut gyro. The former was inoperative, and the latter was unreadable.

In elder days I used to carry a gooseneck flashlight  * in my survival vest against just such an eventuality. You can point such a device pretty much anywhere it needs to be pointed, aircraft avionics systems designed as much as anything else to disappoint at inappropriate times. Not having flown at night in a coon’s age, my gooseneck flashlight has gone the way of all flesh, which is to say I wasn’t able to find it when I came up to Point Mugu a week or so ago. So now, as the dusk deepened into Actual Darkness, I was left pondering the sere joys of a partial panel approach in a high performance fighter I had a whole 11.1 hours experience in.

But! I had a wingman. Quite a good one, actually. Mature, seasoned and experienced. With perfectly functioning attitude displays of his own. Having relayed my concerns, we decided that I would fly on his wing, using his aircraft as my attitude indicator until I was comfortably established on final approach.

The landing was industrial rather than graceful. The tug of the drag chute was gratifying. The taxi back uneventful.

And I am now in the market for a gooseneck flashlight.

** Old link gone; changed – Ed. 

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Flying, Lex, Neptunus Lex

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