Light bulb moment

image: © Daniel Sealey

By Peter McCarthy

As a young pilot with about 170 hours total experience, I agreed to make a five-day trip carrying university students on a cost-sharing basis. There were six passengers in two PA-28 aircraft, one a retractable Archer. The other pilot, more experienced than me, had worked as a flight service officer. We agreed to take turns flying the two aircraft.

The evening of the second day found us in Wollongong, where the students partied late and were rowdy back in our shared motel room. I had a few drinks with them and then lay awake for much of the night listening to a strong gusty wind, and worrying about whether I had tied the aircraft down adequately. I thought about calling a taxi in the early hours to go and check, but it was a 20-minute journey each way. Next morning we were up at six and skipped breakfast to visit an underground coalmine. There I had my first and only experience of sniffing snuff, which the miners used because they could not take cigarettes underground.

The mine visit ran late and it was mid-afternoon when we got back to the airfield. To save time we agreed that the other pilot would prepare and lodge both flight plans while I inspected and signed off both aircraft. We were quickly in the air, and then I discovered that we could not get a clearance direct to Scone as planned, but had to fly past Sydney coastal, adding substantially to the flight time. It was unclear to me the exact route we would be taking, so I couldn’t plot it on the chart or calculate the flight duration. It seemed we would struggle to make last light but the other pilot, on the chat frequency, reassured me that there was pilot activated lighting (PAL) at Scone if we needed it. This was my day in the slower aircraft so he pulled steadily ahead of me.

We passed a couple of landing opportunities in the lower Hunter Valley, but the Arrow was well ahead of me and its pilot encouraged me on. Although lights were already beginning to appear on the ground there was, reassuringly, bright daylight at altitude. When we arrived at Scone there was no PAL available and a combination of high ground and heavy cloud to the west made the airfield an inky shadow, though the town lights shone clearly. The other pilot, who unlike me had a night VMC rating, was still confident and handled communication with Flight Services for both of us. They arranged for some airfield employees to provide emergency lighting for our landing while we orbited the field. To do this they had to cut a padlock on the perimeter fence and line up two cars with crossed headlights on the threshold, with a third car at the other end of the runway for an aiming point. I turned on my landing light and made my first and only night landing without incident.

While filling in the incident report form, I thought deeply about what had gone wrong. I should have made sure the aircraft was securely tied down when I did it, and I was probably too fatigued to fly, but the real problem was that I had abrogated my responsibility for the flight entirely to the other pilot. I was somewhat in awe of his additional experience and knowledge and all too eager on that day to let someone else do all the thinking. While filling in my log book I wondered whether the two hours should go in the in-command column. I wasn’t really in command of that flight.



  1. This is very powerful confession. Thank you. I expect many of us have abdicated our PIC responsibility to an ‘older and wiser’, or ‘more experienced’, or ‘much more qualified’ pilot… or even to a passenger (See: “Yes My Lord”) only to discover that act of surrender was a serious lapse of judgment.


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