The Gift of Flight – Part 2 – Tripple Sevens (or fly me to the moon)

The Gift of Flight – Part 2 – Tripple Sevens (or fly me to the moon) – by P.K.Odendaal – July 2012.
My hair still stands on end when I think of it.
I had just finished my training and licenses for commercial pilot, instructor and instrument rating, and thought that I knew everything. And as always happens, I was then inspired to reach for a higher goal, not being satisfied with the conventional course or accomplishment of conventional pilots. No offence meant.
The game plan was this : The Air Force needed pilots having their own aircraft to assist them in moving the senior staff of the Defence Force around to meetings and field units and even reconnaissance. In turn the Air Force will pay for the hiring of the privately owned aircraft, provide fuel and training, and it would be a win-win situation for pilots and the Air Force. There would be no combat missions, so a pacifist like myself could participate. The training provided would be excellent and extracurricular with regard to commercial flying.

It was right up my alley – and so I joined.
The procedure was that a new pilot would join these Volunteer Air Squadrons, which still exist today, and become a junior chef, progressing over time to aspire to a vacancy for pilot – a much coveted position. There were Lear Jet pilots who stayed junior chefs for long periods, waiting for such a vacancy. Oh, to what lengths and breadths we pilots will go just to fly!
I was very fortunate. Having acquired an Instructor's rating, I was booted up to a pilot post almost immediately. Somehow they knew that I would be no good as a junior chef, as I am normally not even able to boil a kettle.
And so my training started while I was still a rookie.
Apart from many other spine-chilling exercises, I had to get acquainted with night flying without lights. Taking off and landing on short gravel or grass runways somewhere in the bush or bundu, with no town lights or runway lights to orient yourself.
The exercise was as follows : We would take off from a runway without runway lighting, except for the rear lights of one vehicle at the other end of the runway. After take-off we would fly a prescribed pattern that was intended to bring us back over the runway, where a person with a torch was standing next to the centre of the runway, and he would flash the torch to and fro so that we would know that we were over the centre of the runway. From then on we would execute a Tripple Seven procedure to place us on the final approach to this runway. The threshold of the runway would be lighted by the head lamps of two vehicles which stood with their rear lights towards the approach path, and their head lamps would light the touchdown point. And we would also have the rear lights of the vehicle at the other end of the runway to enable us to line up properly with the runway. Why they called it a Tripple Seven, was only to confuse us, as the real numbers were seventy and seven hundred – but in which order, and with how many zeroes, we mostly forgot.
The only problem was that the Tripple Seven never worked out – it was a theoretical figure.
On paper it was already wildly disorientating and complex, and it assumed that there was no wind, which there always was. The procedure stipulated the following : Fly over the centre of the runway at 2100 feet, at a position as indicated by the flashing torch (if you can see it), turn on an outgoing heading of seventy degrees from the runway reverse heading (if you can calculate that quickly), descend 700 feet and fly out for 70 seconds (if you can see your watch), turn left through 210 degrees (3 times 70 degrees) back to the runway heading and lose another 700 feet in the turn which takes 70 seconds, and then you should be 700 feet above the runway and lined up with it, while you lose the last 700 feet in 70 seconds lining the aircraft up with the rear lights of the vehicles (if you can see them).
Well, when you are in the procedure you are as tightly flexed as a spring, and calculating the seconds, degrees and feet and wondering which is 70 and which is 700 can become very intricate and confusing, and all the while you fly the aircraft by instruments in the pitch dark night while you should look outside. There would in any case be nothing to see outside, even if you did look, and you were almost sure to be disorientated because of this glimpse. Fortunately, you have the services of an observer next to you who can tell you that you have missed the lights, or the runway – I forgot which. He would also tell you where the runway is, if you are so fortunate as to roll out in its vicinity. When you roll out on runway heading, the lights should be lined up and in front of you, but, as I said, that never happened. He would just say that the runway is nowhere to be found or it runs from two o'clock to ten o'clock, which is about par for that course.
After finding the runway direction and position, you cannot fly straight towards it in a visual manner, as you are on the instruments and dare not look out or get disorientated. He talks you down as best he can.
Talk of looking for a non-existent black cat in a pitch dark room – this is it. And how we managed it, I still do not know. It was during one of these nights near Swaziland, that one of the aircraft with its single pilot got lost. Yes, sometimes we flew alone at night. You can very quickly start to long for your mother's food and comfort during such nights. However, this pilot was not worried too much, because he has done this many times before. He called up the operations tent by radio and told them that he was lost. The operations room told him to fly towards the moon. They thought that he was west of the field, and the moon on the eastern side would give him a good indication of his direction. It was quite a few years before the advent of GPS equipment.
He thought for a moment and asked : What do I do when I get to the moon? Maybe he was thinking of the song : Fly me to the moon – I don't know. Even so, he was east of the field all the while, so he flew towards Swaziland. His fuel was running low and he had to land soonest. All of a sudden he saw a small town below him, and there in the main street he saw that we had prepared a landing site for him, with all the lights and especially with the flickering red tail lights of our vehicles – how kind of us. He went in for a landing and put the aircraft down without a scratch, only then realising that he had flown clear of all the telephone and electric wires in the main street at a position where an ambulance was taking a person out of a crashed vehicle. We were a hundred miles away – and he only had the fumes of his used up fuel in his tanks.
I never had a mishap, and it sharpened my flying skills over the years.
But someone else did have a mishap.
This pilot was English speaking, and heard 4500 feet in the briefing room beforehand, instead of the 5400 feet he should have heard. This is the initial altitude at which he had to go over the airfield near Malelane. The end is easily foretold. He was 900 feet too low when he struck the ground at full speed during the inbound turn. It was in an orange orchard. The aircraft bounced up over a motor grader, having been left in the orchard, hit a few trees and came to a standstill. The four people in the aircraft crawled out without injury.
Actually, the statistics of single engine aircraft landing at night due to engine failure is much better than it should be. An emergency landing at night is theoretically lethal, but many pilots get out unscathed. And that is why we have this saying in aviation : If your engine stops in flight during the night, put on your landing lights and glide down until you can see the ground. If you see an open piece of land or veldt where you can land safely, then land there. If, however, your landing light only shines on trees and rocks and mountainous terrain while descending, then just put off your landing light.