I’m Learning How To Fly At Night (in a Cessna 172)

Brad Newton Fitness
Aug 7 · 9 min read

It was 5 pm and time to prepare the little four seat Cessna 172 for a 2-hour night flying adventure to Latrobe Valley; a 37-minute flight from Moorabbin in Melbourne, Australia.

While I was doing my external checks of the aircraft, I couldn’t help but to notice the incredible sunset under the wing of the aircraft at Moorabbin airport.

The colour of the sunset changed when I did my internal checks of the aircraft.

That orange glow was just magical.

As a pilot with just over 200 hours of total experience with 95% of those hours flown during daylight hours -learning to fly at night has brought a whole new level of excitement to flying.

As part of my night rating training, I need to sit with an instructor for about 10 hours of night flying to learn the syllabus required to be “night rated.”

It seems unusual for a pilot to be restricted to daytime flying but it is common for private pilots to be restricted to clear-of-cloud daytime operations! Like me 🙂

Several weeks ago, the instructor asked that I plan this navigation flight from Moorabbin airport to Latrobe Valley, then back to Moorabbin via Tooradin.

On a navigation chart, the flight planned track looks like this.

It is a little hard to see however I’ve tried to make it clearer with blue arrows.

Essentially, a straight 66 nautical mile track from Moorabbin to Latrobe Valley, a 50 mile leg to Tooradin, and 21 miles back to Moorabbin.

If you look carefully, slightly north of track between Moorabbin and Latrobe Valley are dangerously high mountains, known as our Great Dividing Range.

These ranges have no lights and cast no shadows in the darkness of the night!

Departing Moorabbin

Taxi for Runway 35R

After checking the aircraft and lodging my flight plan, it was time for my instructor and I to depart Moorabbin for Latrobe Valley — the first leg of the flight plan.

Shortly after getting airborne from runway 35R, I continued my climb to 2,400 feet while turning onto my assigned heading of 090 degrees.

During this time, my instructor started to deliver a cascade of instructions which, at first, completely overwhelmed me.

I felt like I was learning to fly all over again. It was very overwhelming and for the first 20 minutes of our flight to Latrobe Valley, I was totally overwhelmed.

After I settled into the flight, I felt much better about the flight and my initial overwhelm dissipated.

Turning on the Runway Lights

Enroute Latrobe Valley with my red torch!

As part of my night rating training, I need to demonstrate that I can turn the runway lights on at the destination airport using a discrete frequency on the radio.

At around 5 nautical miles from Latrobe Valley, I tuned in the required frequency on my radio and then held down the talk switch for “3 seconds ON and 1 second OFF” (repeated 3 times). Before I knew it, the runway lights immediately illuminated and it was time for me to descend down into the circuit.

Prior to my night rating training, I assumed runway lights for all runways were permanently on. Well I was wrong! Some need to be manually activated by the pilot and will remain on for 30 minutes before automatically turning off.

A “Black Hole” Landing at Latrobe Valley

Latrobe Valley. Landing into a black hole.

While on descent to join the circuit at Latrobe Valley at 1,200 feet for a landing on runway 03, I noticed vertical plumes of smoke from nearby energy stations.

This positively confirmed in my mind that it was perfectly calm and that I wouldn’t need to consider fighting a crosswind on final approach to land.

However, after turning on to final approach for runway 03 at 800 feet, I immediately noticed that my descent profile was too high on the approach. See photo above. It was exactly what I saw.

As you can see, the runway is barely visible and surrounded by complete darkness!

According to night flying theory, this kind of approach is known as a “black hole” approach — and apparently is the most dangerous type of night approach.

At no point did I feel I was in danger but, without any other queues to judge your descent profile except the runway lights, I can appreciate why it is not a popular approach for pilots.

Nevertheless, I was too high. If you look closely, you’ll see four distinct white lights to the left of the runway (photo above).

If the aircraft is on the correct profile, the PAPI (precision approach path indicator) will indicate two white and two red lights. Four white lights means I am way too high!

As I approached closer to the runway, I decided to undertake a missed approach — or aborted landing — to make another attempt.

On the second attempt, this was how my profile appeared.

Much better 🙂 Even though the PAPI indicates I am too high?

After a smooth touch down on runway 03 with nil wind, I applied full power and screamed down the runway to depart overhead for Moorabbin.

After climbing to our lowest safe altitude (LSALT) above the runway, I intercepted an approximate track of 270 degrees for Moorabbin.

The instructor asked that I intercept different tracks using one of the radio navigation aids in the aircraft.

After a few intercepts, I continued my planned track over a few “glowing” townships connected together by a singular highway. On my right and left hand side is where dangerous mountains exist and is a complete no-go zone.

Diversion from Drouin to Tooradin

With the deep glow of the township of Drouin approaching the aircraft from up ahead, the instructor asked that I prepare for a diversion to Tooradin from Drouin (marked in red).

Soon after the request, I reached for my red torch, navigation map, and protractor, and immediately estimated that I’d need to change to a new heading of 250 degrees.

I drew a very rough pencil line on my chart from Drouin to Tooradin under the red light of my torch, while continuing to manually fly the aircraft.

In the Cessna 172, there is no “flight computer” and I never use the autopilot. So all night navigation is done by visual reference to lit features on the ground and compared against features printed on paper charts!

The instructor reminded me that I needed to determine my lowest safe altitude from Drouin to Tooradin. In other words, the lowest altitude we can safely fly to guarantee we won’t crash into mountains or other obstacles.

Where is Tooradin?

The above photo is exactly what I saw the moment I turned onto 250 degrees (from 270 degrees) for Tooradin.

Looking at this picture in front of me, I had no idea what Tooradin was supposed to look like at night! All of those lights look the same!

And navigating during the day where there are plenty of ground references no longer exist during the darkness of the night. All you have are groups of lights… and more lights!

All I knew was the dense glow of lights in the background was metropolitan Melbourne and the glow extending down and to the right was Pakenham.

But I sat in the left hand seat at the controls wondering… where is Tooradin? And I looked really hard at my navigation chart under my red torch then back out into the distance. Trying to make sense of the lights.

The instructor had to point it out for me! It was really hard to find. In hindsight, Tooradin is easy to find if I used Pakenham as a reference point.

I guess that is the reason I have an instructor sitting in the right hand seat.

After arriving overhead Tooradin, I turned the aircraft to track directly to Moorabbin. As we slowly approached the bright glow of the city lights of Melbourne, I had to take a moment to capture some magical moments.

This is what metropolitan Melbourne looks like from a Cessna 172.

And with a little bit of cockpit in the frame.

If you look closely at the third large instrument from the left, you’ll see that I am cruising at 2,400 feet. About 100 feet above the calculated lowest safe altitude on this leg of the flight.

In other words, I am guaranteed to clear the highest obstacle on this leg by at least 1,000 feet.

It was toward the end of the flight and I was getting physically and mentally exhausted. It probably didn’t help that I did a powerful leg session in the gym prior to this flight!

Landing at Moorabbin

Nevertheless, within 3 nautical miles of Moorabbin, I commenced my descent from 1,500 feet down to 1,000 feet, joining Base for runway 35R.

On my first and final attempt, I knew I would make this landing when I saw this descent profile (see above photo).

And after 2.3 hours of flying, I was completely shattered.

I had such an amazing time learning how to intercept headings, undertake a safe diversion, maintain lowest safe altitudes, and improve my landings at night.

It was also a cool experience to watch the runway lights turn on at Latrobe Valley after activating them from inside the cockpit.

The cloud base was very high and it was quite a smooth night for flying. And I will definitely make a vlog which you can watch on my YouTube channel.

The cost of this 2.3 hour training flight was $936.70 AUD. Definitely not cheap. It is exactly the reason why I am working my corporate job right now 🙂

Aviation Weather

To finish off, I thought it would be a good idea to share the aviation forecast that was applicable to my night flight.

It is all in “pilot lingo” but for the few pilots out there reading this, you’ll get an idea of what the conditions were like for me.

Here is the Graphical Area Forecast (GAF).

Final Thoughts?

In about a week or so from now, I will be doing another navigation flight which is one flight closer to my flight test.

If you are looking at getting your pilot’s licence or a night rating as an extension to your licence — I highly recommend it! (but as you can see… it’s not cheap!)

Thanks so much for reading.

Lastly, if you want to take your fitness transformation to another level, check out my free fitness training videos.

If you found this article useful, please click the “clap” icon as it helps other people find it. For any questions, you can ask me on my website, Instagram, or my vlog.

Originally published at https://www.bradnewton.tv on August 7, 2019.

Brad Newton Fitness

Written by

Fitness & Vlogging | www.bradnewton.tv

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade