Broad Street Wrington Website:
Trevor Wedlake's Writings
Night Flight

Published on the Website January, 2004

By this time we had gone through all the usual training: cockpit drill, emergency procedures, use of controls, take-offs, landings, circuits, engine failures, forced landings, recovering from spin, cross-country flying and solo flying. Now it was time to give it a go at night.

"Even the birds aren't foolish enough to do that," said a mechanic. Dark winter days permitted night-flying to begin early in the evening. "Go to the aircraft," said Frank, my instructor, "and make sure you can find everything blindfold. I'll join you in a minute." This was a daunting little exercise, and thereafter I carried a pocket torch 'just in case'. We ran through the cockpit drill aloud - oil temperature, oil pressure, barometric pressure, fuel, trim-set, flaps, magnetos, &c, and taxied to the holding point.

"Permission to take off" from flying control, and we rolled, keeping staright between the dim lights which marked the edges of the runway. "Rotate" called Frank as we reached 60 knots, and up we went into the night to 1,500 ft., at which point we turned left through 90º onto the crosswind leg, reduced power to cruising, levelled out and re-trimmed. A few minutes brought us to the downwind turn, 90º, gave Control our position, and ran through the downwind checks aloud: mixture, fuel, brakes, flaps, landing light, &c. "I don't advise depending on the landing light, it might fail at a crucial time," said Frank. Light switched off !

We flew beyond the airfield boundary and turned again onto base leg, and when we were abreast of the runway, outlined by its parallel lights, we turned onto our final approach. Permission received for a touch-and-go landing, we came down and 'touched' and opened up the throttle. "You fly the aircraft, I'll clean up," shouted Frank as he retracted the flaps and turned off the carb. heaters, and up we went and round and down and touch and go for an hour. I had been too high, too low, lost sight of the runway, and wasn't sorry when a stiffening crosswind ended flying for the evening.

Although he was rather aloof, and in manner professional (wearing his monocle day and night), Frank was empathetic to our various fears and weaknesses. He had been a teacher all his working life. I wondered if he had taught music. Sometimes, sitting around waiting for weather, he liked to talk away about Brahms and Schubert and the 'minor quartets of Beethoven', though he never once mentioned Bach. Only two years later he was to die flying.

One day when we were flying a rather boring cross-country leg, he said "If I suddenly shouted "throttle" at you, what would you do ?" A little hesitantly I called back, "Open it." "Good." It transpired that when a previous pupil was approaching dangerously low, he'd shouted "throttle" and the boy closed it. They landed well short and cut a destructive swathe through a ready-to-reap wheat field. "Trouble was," said Frank, "I'd been chatting up the farmer's nubile daughter. Before it was diplomatic to call at the farm again, somebody else had his feet under the table."

The second night saw the same routine, and increased confidence and improvement could be recorded. And so to the third night, ebony black and moon-less. Round and round we flew, up and down, touch and go, circuit and bump. Then on one circuit we told flying control we were coming down for a full-stop landing. We rolled to a halt and cleared the track. "Perhaps you'd like to take her round," said Frank. "Back to the hangar ?" "No,no,no - fly her round," said Frank. "Christ," I said - and He will forgive me though you may not. We taxied to dispersal. Frank got out and gave me the thumbs up and left me to it.

The instruments shone green from the panel, the engine throbbed. Just who did I think I was ? I checked the mag again, got my clearance to line up, then "Clear to take off." This was it ! I opened up the throttle and motored off down the runway and rotated. The little lights fell away. Ahead and all around the black empty void of the night sky.

I flew the routine we'd been taught and, having informed flying control of my downwind position, I looked and listened for the other pupil on the circuit ahead. I couldn't see his nav. light, and fearing I might be getting too close, I eased back the stick, and closely monitoring the altimeter and air speed, reduced speed by 20 knots. To make sure, I also decided to fly further down wind beyond the field. And them I heard a voice crackle over the radio that he was down and clear.

Anxiety past, I backed steeply onto my final approach and rolled out, and getting comfortable in my seat I thought that even if it was going to be a rather botched landing, no one would know in the darkness.

On down we came in the time-honoured way, reducing height with power and maintaining airspeed with elevators. I had feared under-shooting in the dark and erred on the high side, but realising that I was too high (no modern approach aids) I selected more flap, and on down we came over the fields and over the threshold. I rounded out and held off, reducing the power.

The little runway lights were flashing in my eyes. A touch of rudder counteracted the drift, and the backward pressure on the stick was increased. Back and back and back, and the little aircraft sank gently to the silkiest and smoothest of landings. A great feeling; probably like scoring a goal or hitting a 6 in a cup match.

Back to dispersal. I shut down the engine and leaped out. The wily instructor was there. "That was very good," he said. I looked at him. "Oh, I watched you round and stood at the runway and listened for the sound of your tyres as they made contact with the tarmac."

Sometimes, when a schoolboy sits at his desk and time walks and ambitions burgeon, future plans are set. But when, in George Elliot's words, "The golden days of childhood have closed behind him forever", and time quickens and realities intrude, the grown man may well ponder that his performance has fallen so very short of the youth's unsullied dreams. For a brief moment this man felt that the boy might have afforded him a little smile of approval.