I was training this delightful bunch of Pommy pupes in Beaufort West. They were a seismographic crew on a mission to find oil in the Karoo. Each one was a huge pleasure to fly with. They were young, enthusiastic, well-educated, and they had the money to put in plenty of hours. Soon they had all finished their PPL training and were keen to get on with night ratings.
The first part of this – the instrument flying – went smoothly enough. There was almost no traffic, and Beaufort West had an NDB so we could play ‘let-down let-down’. It was when we started the actual night flying that things became interesting.
Two different things happened. The first was partly my fault. I didn’t have a lot of night flying experience, and Diamond Dick Haremse, who had done my night training in Kimberley, must have been the worst instructor in the world. Actually, Dick didn’t instruct at all – he slouched in the right-hand seat, like a bag of potatoes, smoking one stinking Camel cigarette after another.
Every now and then he would stop smoking. This meant he had gone to sleep. He would sink even deeper into his seat, let his mouth hang open, and quietly drool down the front of his jersey. Not a pretty sight. And he charged good money for his services.
In short, my knowledge – and ability – around the art of night flying was pretty skeletal. But to make matters worse, I was too inexperienced to know how bad I was. I had fallen into the Dunning-Kruger trap.
The second part of the night flying problem was out of my control, extremely puzzling, and quite funny.
I will come back to that shortly, but at the moment, I would like to side-step to discuss Comrades Kruger and Dunning in a bit more detail, because I think that if pilots understand this subject, they will be a lot safer. So please bear with me. These guys are worth listening to.
They are not only about making night flying safer, but all flying.
These two okes were awarded a Nobel Prize in 2000 for their report entitled, ‘How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’. Wikipedia says, “It was about the cognitive bias of competence by way of illusory superiority. It derives from the inability of low-ability persons to recognise their own ineptitude.”
Don’t panic – this just means being too stupid to know how stupid you are. Unfortunately, it affects all of us and can be life-threatening in an aeroplane.
It is an overconfidence that is not born of cockiness; it’s a genuine unawareness of our shortcomings. And it is caused by inexperience, or sometimes poor training. In the case of my night flying, it was both.
The corollary of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that highly capable people tend to underestimate their relative competence. They, therefore, erroneously presume that tasks they find easy are also easy for others. [Wiki again]
The significance of this in aviation is that instructors, to be effective, have to keep putting themselves in the shoes of their students. This is one of the hallmarks of a good instructor.
D’s & K’s interest in the subject came from the criminal case of an unbelievably stupid guy called McArthur Wheeler. He robbed banks after covering his face in lemon juice, which he thought would make it invisible to security cameras. He had heard that that’s how invisible ink works – true story.
In a 2005 study, Dunning said, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent ... The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognise what a right answer is.” Neatly put.
In 2008, they concluded that “poor performers do not learn from feedback which suggests the need to improve.” I find that really worrying.
If you doubt the importance of the D-K effect on us pilots, here is what some famous non-pilots said about it:
Confucius (Chinese teacher, editor, politician and philosopher): Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.
William Shakespeare (English poet and playwright): The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
Charles Darwin (English naturalist, geologist and biologist): Ignorance more frequently begets confidence, than does knowledge.
Bertrand Russell (philosopher and mathematician): One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.
Okay, enough already. In the sphere of night flying, I neatly conformed to Russell’s definition of stupid – I didn’t know enough about it to know how little I knew.
I quickly had to learn some of the following life-saving tips that Diamond Dick failed to teach me.
Make sure you have a decent horizon and at least half a moon. Otherwise you will take off slap into a black hole that demands instant, and precise instrument flying skills. Most deaths at night happen within 60 seconds after takeoff. Non-rated pilots climb into no-horizon conditions. They lose it and spiral into the ground. This is frighteningly common. I came within a whisker of doing it myself on my first night solo.
Make very sure you know what the wind is doing. At a controlled airfield, ATC will be your Mommy and will watch over you. But in the bush, the wind is your problem. If a mean crosswind or tailwind springs up, undetected, your takeoff or landing becomes a serious finger-out operation. And you probably won’t know you are in trouble until it’s too late. Paraffin lamps, no lighted windsock, and no crash-wagon, are thoughts that pass through the mind of the wily pilot. It’s good to be creative in your search for wind and weather info.
Add 10 kt to your lift-off speed. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it will help you to keep things under control if a crosswind does spring up. And second, the acceleration of the aircraft makes it feel as if the nose is pitching up so there’s an overwhelming temptation to push the nose down immediately after lift-off. The results are often catastrophic. This leads us to the next tip.
As the wheels leave the ground, go immediately onto instruments and get the nose slightly above the horizon – no matter how crappy this feels. The extra bit of speed allows you to keep the nose up while climbing and accelerating towards your climb speed.
Stay on instruments. Don’t be tempted to look for a horizon until you have turned crosswind. And this is the first time you will be criticised if you lookout before turning. Do NOT look round for other traffic – you won’t see anything, and the act of turning your head can be a catalyst for vertigo.
After you turn crosswind, look for the flarepath just behind your left wing. Remember that’s 90° left – smaller number on the DI. If you can’t see the flares, go straight back on to instruments – don’t keep looking. Settle down, level off at 1,000 ft AGL, and then look again for the airfield and a horizon.
Relax. The immediate pitfalls of takeoff are behind you.
At Beaufort West, while Messrs Dunning and Kruger looked on with bated breath, I learned all these things very quickly and was able to pass them on to my pupils without killing anyone. Many have not been so lucky.
Those of you who have flown at night, using a flarepath consisting of two lines of hurricane lamps, may be familiar with the uniquely South African phenomenon of ‘the walking lanterns’. This is a condition during which part of your landing guidance system simply picks itself up and disappears into other people’s homes.
During one circuit, only a portion of the lights may disappear. But if you head off to the general flying area for half an hour or so, you may return to find the airfield has completely gone.
On a black night, having nowhere to land can be a bowel-clenching experience.
At Beaufort West we had no close neighbours, neither did we use hurricane lanterns. We had the far superior ‘goose-neck’ flarepath. This consisted of two rows of smelly containers that resembled watering-cans with thick spouts, down which pieces of rope had been threaded. We filled these with paraffin and spaced them out along the field before setting fire to the protruding ends of the ropes. The effect is stunning. You get a healthy, shoulder-high flame that can be seen for many miles on a clear night – just the thing to land by. They were used at military and civil airfields for many years.
I suspect that our problem with these magnificent devices was unique, and may go down in the archives as a landmark in the chronicles of night flying.
On our first session of night flying, all went well. The goosenecks behaved in exactly the same way that goosenecks have traditionally behaved. Each radiated a fine flame which guided us unwaveringly to a satisfactory return to the planet.
It was only on the second night that the difficulty presented itself. A pupil and I had left the circuit for a little while – I don’t remember why – and when we returned, all was not as advertised. Two of the flares had become young lakes of fire and several more had gone out.
Now, goosenecks don’t just go out. They are specifically designed not to do so – regardless of wind.
The pupes on the ground were braaiing and drinking beer near the hangar, so they hadn’t noticed this distressing development.
I teach students to do most of their night landings with the landing-light off. They must feel comfortable with this so if it fails they are quite at home. Anyhow, I did a couple of runs down the runway with the landing-light on, but couldn’t see anything interesting, so we landed and called it a day.
By the time we went with a bakkie to pick up the flares, the lakes of paraffin had burned out, and the non-burning goosenecks were empty and lying on their sides. We were all much puzzled by these developments. They were almost certainly not man-made events – there simply were no people in that desolate and barren patch of Karoo.
The following night the trouble repeated itself, and it was only on the third night that we got to the bottom of it. I had persuaded a contingent of flare-watchers to park the bakkie on the edge of the runway and observe the goings-on. It turned out that a warthog had, for some extraordinary reason, taken a violent dislike to our flares.
The observers could hear the thunder of his hooves as he charged across the runway and ran slap into the goosenecks – sending them flying.
We never did manage to cure the problem, so there was always a danger of shunting him with the aircraft. This was a risk of which I failed to notify Dennis Jankelow (my insurance oke). We eventually accepted it as part of the hazards of bush flying.
So those were the problems. First, I didn’t have the experience to realise how dangerous night flying can be on a moonless night. The black-hole effect that you get when taking off or landing from a country field with the town lights behind you, and nothing but deep ebony ahead, has killed many pilots.
And second, the worry of the naughty warty.
Thinking about Beaufort West, I was bragging, in a previous article, about never having ground-looped an aircraft. Well, I was sort of half lying. I have just remembered this old Afrikaans guy, whose name escapes me, so I will call him Oom Frik.
One day, he pitched up at George, from Beaufort West, to collect his Globe Swift. Coetz, the engineer – and my mortal enemy – had spent the last six months rebuilding the aircraft after a groundloop.
If you want to know whether a particular aeroplane is prone to groundlooping, just go through its logbooks. If it has spent more time being repaired than it has flying, you have your answer.
Many will shoot me down for what I have to say next, but I think the Globe Swift is not a nice aeroplane. The best thing about it is its looks. Some reckon it has the appearance of a WWII fighter, and others say she is stressed for aerobatics. I am not sure I agree with either.
To me, she is just another example of the cramped, noisy, miserable little brutes of that era. The Vagabond was another, and so was the Family Cruiser, and even the Pacer. All Austers also fall into that category, as does the dreadful French Gardan Horizon, and the truly awful Chrislea products – the Ace and the Sky Jeep.
These two horrors had rudder pedals which moved vertically up and down – as did the control yoke. I kid you not – no back and forward movement – only up and down. I can’t remember which way you moved it to get the nose up, but neither way is intuitive.
I watched one crash at Wonderboom. The pilot became confused about which way was which, immediately after takeoff. The aircraft performed a series of ever increasing oscillations, and eventually came down almost vertically onto its nose, stopping in a cloud of red dust. They took the driver away on a stretcher.
But back to the Globe Swift. What a misnomer – she is anything but swift. In fact, she is slug-racingly slow. You keep tapping the airspeed indicator and checking that you have pulled the wheels up, and are not trailing full flap. Hell, she is a two-seater with a retractable undercarriage and the same 145 hp, six-cylinder, Continental engine as the early Cessna 172s. But she somehow manages to be 10 kt slower than a 172. Only really bad aerodynamics make this possible.
Anyhow, Oom Frik adjusts his hearing aid and asks me to do a test flight on the aircraft. Coetz, the hated engineer, hovers in the background.
I can’t remember whether he really was an awful person, or if we just hated each other because he was the Cessna agent, and I was the Piper guy. Anyhow, it grieves Coetz’s soul that I have to assess, and sign out, his work – I am the only commercial pilot in range, so he has no choice.
After our initial introductory pleasantries, Oom Frik turns around to have a short board meeting with Coetz in Afrikaans, while I look on blankly. They decide that it would be best if I don’t fly the aircraft at all. Instead, I should just sign off the paperwork and we can all go home.
They come to this decision based on my admission that I have never flown a Globe Swift before. They, therefore, conclude that I am not in a position to pass judgement on its performance.
I shrug, tell them “no fly, no sign,” and head for my little office.
They totter behind me, and after some further discussion agree that they do actually want me to fly it after all.
I do a careful pre-flight and climb on the wing to get in the left-hand seat.
“Nou wat doen jy?” enquires an agitated Oom Frik, as he smooths down his scraggy white comb-over.
I tell him I am about to fly his aeroplane, as agreed. This is met by an anguished cry of protest – no one, but no one, flies his aeroplane.
Another pow-wow ensues and Oom Frik eventually agrees that I can fly, but only from the right-hand seat – and he is going to work the radio. I realise that this could prove entertaining. Frik is planning to communicate with our grumpy, English-speaking controller, Raymond Waitley, via his (Frik’s) hearing aid.
I am just the driver, and there’s no other traffic, so I don’t really care.
Eventually, off we blast. It’s an easy flight. I do all the climb and stall tests, taking readings of the temps and pressures every minute, and then head back to the field. Despite having no toe-brakes on my side, I look forward to landing this reputed groundlooper.
We touch down gently on the mains, but as the tailwheel comes down, five things conspire against me. First, the gyroscopic force of the prop turns us slightly right. I am expecting this, so it should present no problem. But, as the tail goes down, the rudder’s airflow gets blanked by the tubby little fuselage. This is still no surprise, but the fact that it needs full rudder, does catch me off guard. No problem, I ask Oom Frik for some left brake.
The crunch comes when he ignores my “left brake!” call.
He takes no action at all, but stares rigidly ahead while gripping the base of his seat with both hands.
I try again, louder, “Left brake!” But it’s game over by this time. We do a very large, lazy 180 on the rough grass and come to a reasonably dignified halt.
Oom Frik takes off his headset allowing his comb-over to flop down the side of his face. I suddenly see why he ignored my pleas for left brake. Unplugged, and lying on the floor, in a tangle of wires, is his effing hearing-aid.