By Greg Ackman
It was a lovely day for flying and my two passengers were a husband and wife who owned a business that sold my products.
I was in the city visiting their shop when I mentioned that I recently gained my PPL—they were both very keen to go flying with me. Since I hadn’t done a lot of flying recently and being in a different city from my home base, I agreed to take them for a local flight on the following Sunday. As I was still a newbie, I was a bit nervous about renting from the main secondary airport with busy weekend traffic and demanding tower controllers. Luckily, there was another small airfield about 20 nm east with a local flying club and a C172 for hire.
I made an appointment for the Saturday afternoon and did my check ride and local area familiarisation flight in less than one hour. I was well pleased with my check flight at the lovely grassy airfield and, with the help of the local CFI, I planned a one-hour flight the next day to take in the local sights.
On Sunday my booking was for 3 pm which gave me almost 2.5 hours until last light, plenty of time to do the trip. We arrived at 2.30 but were told the aircraft had a flat tyre and the club members were searching for a spare tube. By the time the aircraft was serviceable, it was 4 pm when we taxied out and headed south on the first leg.
The flight was pure magic as we tooled along with the puffy clouds. At 4.30 pm I did a 180-degree turn onto the reciprocal track and started heading back to the grassy field with an ETA of 5.05 pm. However, at about 4.50 pm as we were near the secondary airport, the female passenger expressed a desire for a comfort stop. I advised her it would only be 15 minutes until we landed but she replied the coffee that was consumed during our delay wouldn’t wait that long!
I decided it was best to land and called downwind; we were cleared immediately for a landing. At 5.05 pm we again taxied out for the short flight east. As we were number three to depart, I began to get nervous about last light. After 10 minutes we were cleared to line up. The tower controller asked if I was night rated. This caught me by surprise and I answered ‘yes’ and he immediately cleared me to depart with a right turn to the east. On lifting off I noticed the sun was gone—I turned towards the twilight ahead and the approaching darkness along my track.
I realised later I should have just rejoined the circuit and landed immediately. I foolishly decided to press on to my destination only 10 minutes away so as not to cause perceived embarrassment and inconvenience to myself and the passengers.
We arrived in the circuit area above a dark airfield where I could just make out the buildings and runway. I quickly joined downwind but by the time I was on final, the runway way just a hazy blur. I commenced the flare but, looking at the horizon, found I couldn’t see the runway and was descending into a black void. I increased power, pitched up and began to climb out.
When I was at about 500 feet, the radio crackled to life—the club CFI was asking if I was flying their Cessna. I quickly responded and he told me to orbit while they organised lights. Within a couple of minutes, I could see lights moving in the dark. By this time my passengers worked out what was happening and they were freaking out, adding to my stress.
However, there were soon multiple headlight beams aimed down the runway and flashing turn indicators showing the threshold. The approach and landing were uneventful although it did take a while to find the clubhouse in the dark and taxi in. To say the CFI was upset would be an understatement! I was also upset that the aircraft was supposed to be night VFR but had no serviceable instrument, landing lights or a working ADF. The net result was that I paid a fine of a case of beer and the club agreed to fix the aircraft’s lighting systems.
I learnt some real lessons that day:
- Don’t depart an airfield before last light and fly to another airfield without lights at the destination.
- Make sure before flying, the night VFR aircraft is in fact serviceable for night operations.
- Always contact the aircraft operator if you deviate from the planned flight.
- If you take-off and don’t like what’s ahead, go back and land immediately.
- Don’t ever risk the lives of your passengers for the sake of inconvenience.
- Make sure the passengers have comfort breaks before they fly.
I scared myself silly and my passengers were understandably very upset and, only through the grace of God and the fast and clear action by the club CFI, did my flight have a happy ending. I am very lucky to be alive to tell the tale.