The Recovery Team Does Its Job.
A date slipped by unnoticed recently - it was the anniversary of my forced landing in rather inhospitable terrain. At the time I swore that I would never forget the date and celebrate my fortunate escape as if it were my birthday. Well, time marches on and some plans are ultimately forgotten. However, this year the chill in the air reminded me of that cold night in the Blue Mountains, waiting for the sound of the rescue helicopter. And yet it wasn't the memory of the aircraft engine stopping or the treetops looming that sent shivers up my spine. It was the next flight.
After being flown by helicopter to hospital I was given a thorough examination by the medical staff. Aside from a huge adrenalin dump and a racing pulse, I had walked away unscathed, as had my student. That night I celebrated and that weekend I reflected, but when Monday came around I was less than thrilled. My first flight following the engine failure was a night flight in a single engine aircraft. I was to conduct a flight test to assess the suitability of the candidate to hold a night cross-country rating, something I had done many times before. But this time was different.
Many pilots understandably do not like flying single-engine aircraft at night for the simple lack of options. Should the engine stop, the aircraft may well be established in a glide towards a black abyss of unknown terrain. It is a thought that is less than comforting, but up until that time, one that had not played on my mind. However, on the night of that first flight after my accident, I sat in the run-up bay beside the runway as the student conducted his 'before take-off' checklist. As he increased the engine power to check the magnetos and 'carburettor heat' I listened for the slightest hiccup in the engine's rhythm. In fact I strained my hearing to breaking point.
We were the only aircraft flying that night it seemed and all around was darkness, only interrupted by the lights of the runway and the glowing windsock. The instrument panel lights and radio selectors reflected in the top of the windscreen as if this simple trainer possessed a complex overhead panel like an airliner. Still, outside, it was black. Inside, I realised that my hands were sweating and that I was clutching my clipboard a little tightly.
"Was that a misfire?" It wasn't but my heart skipped a beat. "Snap out of it, Zuppie" I chastised myself as I walked a tightrope between genuine safety awareness and an excuse to taxi back to the flying school. I was well aware of a fellow pilot that had experienced trouble 'getting back on the horse' after his aircraft accident. His confidence in both his ability and his aircraft had been shattered and it was the best part of a year before he had seemingly recovered. I couldn't let that happen to me - I was the Chief Pilot after all. My mind raced.
Night Flying. (Image: Mr. Aviation)
I ran through the checklist as well to allow time for logic to dispel the demons and it seemed to work. I was focused once again and gave the student the 'thumbs up' to get the flight underway and he released the brakes without delay. Soon the two rows of brilliant runway lights lay ahead, tapering until they almost met in the distance. The student transmitted that we were rolling and then the engine power roared in my ears that still hunted for an inconsistency. My eyes scanned the engine instruments as always, but now my retinas seemed to be directly linked to my heart rate.
And then flight.
The wheels left the runway and the rumbling stopped. The student reduced power to the climb setting and the airframe vibrations seemed to modulate. We rolled gently into a turn, away from the runway lights towards the night ahead and the stars that put the reflecting instrument panel lights to shame. We set course and the partial moon lit the paddocks below, offering me a degree options should my luck be against me for the second time in 72 hours. My grip loosened on the clipboard and I remembered why I enjoyed flying at night.
The radio was almost void of chatter and there was not a ripple in the air. Our first turning point was a pocket of lights on the horizon and a thread of cars' headlights led the way. Beyond was two hours of navigating by a mix of radio beacons and charts and it no longer held the same degree of trepidation. There were still moments when I sweated a little more, or the engine may have sounded slightly less than perfect. Yet, I had to expect my mind to be asking questions of my logic at being airborne at night so soon after my accident; it was only natural.
That night the student flew the near-perfect flight test, making my presence almost superfluous. By the time our wheels touched down at the flight's end we had traversed a good portion of the countryside and flown take-offs and landings at a very remote, dark runway. Neither the student, nor the aircraft had let me down and I questioned my hesitation only a few hours earlier.
Still, having had a genuine engine failure in a single engine aircraft, one's perspective changes. There is an even more heightened awareness of the terrain below and 'forced landing' is no longer simply an exercise in a syllabus. Even so, it was not the actual forced landing that stirred the emotions as the aircraft glided towards towards the earth, as I was far too busy flying the aeroplane. It was the subsequent time and reflection that had the greatest impact. It was the next flight.