A Melbourne private pilot details how he survived having a laser pointed into the cockpit of his light aircraft while flying at 500 feet at night.
My night-flying recency was under threat; it had been five months since I’d gone up after the sun had gone down, so I had to fly without passengers on my next night flight. If I let the nocturnal inactivity extend to six months I’d have to take an instructor up with me for the next night flight. I decided that an hour of night circuits in an Archer was the least that I could do – the very least, as I wasn’t in a position to make a cross-country flight this time.
The external lights were all working but the panel lights weren’t. The overhead red cabin light would do the job, plus I had my torch with me and I wasn’t going away from the airport.
There was only six knots of wind from the southeast and overcast at 6000’ when I taxied out to Runway 17 (17L in daylight) behind a twin that was off somewhere further than I intended to go. The tower was closed; Moorabbin had reverted to Class G airspace. I’d made my taxi call and entering and rolling call without getting a response, nor expecting one. The first circuit was uneventful until I was on final and heard an aircraft inbound intending to use Runway 13. I called him and advised that Runway 17 was in use. There was no response. “Too embarrassed, probably,” I thought.
I touched down, retracted the flaps, accelerated and lifted off again. Turning downwind, I heard and observed another aircraft, a Cessna 172, joining mid-crosswind. I gave a position call; no response. Concerned, I shone my torch onto the radio panel. COM1 was on the CTAF(R) frequency but the mike was switched to COM2, which was on the unmonitored club frequency! I banked away from the circuit, switched to COM1 and radioed the C172 to explain my actions and apologise. “What an idiot!” I cursed myself. The pilot of the C172 nonetheless assured me that he had sighted my aircraft.
A little rattled by my oversight, I headed out to the Carrum reporting point and headed back towards the circuit, making position radio calls as I did so. The inbound twin wanted to confirm that I wasn’t in his way, so I confirmed that I was a couple of miles away and wouldn’t be back until he’d landed.
A couple of circuits later, reaching 500’ after lifting off, as I lifted my eyes from the instruments to look outside again, the aircraft was bathed in an unearthly green light. My imagination leapt right past, “UFO! Alien abduction! I’m going to meet Frederick Valentich!” without a cursory glance to, “That’s a starboard navigation light! I’m climbing into the belly of another aircraft!”.
In 15 years and 425 hours of private flying I’ve had a few unexpected events. I’ve dropped a wing on short final at Mallacoota when wind-shear meant that the 45-knot headwind dropped off to almost nothing and my airspeed fell below stalling speed. On that occasion I pushed forward on the control column, shoved the throttle forward and gingerly picked up the dropped wing with the rudder. Crossing the threshold with flying speed regained, I cut the throttle and landed smoothly.
I’ve had a C152’s engine cough alarmingly when I pitched up after a late tower-ordered a go-around, necessitating a landing after all. I pushed forward, side-slipped to the grass beside the runway on the assumption that the tower was warning me about an aircraft landing on top of me, and radioed my intention to the tower. They cleared me to land and I had just enough height to side-slip back onto the tarmac. I never saw the presumed aircraft in conflict and don’t know, to this day, why the go-around was ordered.
I’ve had a radio failure at night as I entered the Melbourne control zone on my way home. Since I’d just been cleared to fly through the control zone to the other side I decided that doing what I’d been cleared to do was the best course of action. Circling or doing anything else would leave the controller having to guess what I was up to. Communication was restored as I passed abeam Tullamarine and Essendon airports; a dodgy frequency selector knob was to blame.
I’ve had the gear-safe lights on an Arrow fail to illuminate. An angel on the airwaves showed me how to use the gear-up warning horn to confirm that the gear was down and locked, using reverse logic.
All of these were learning experiences, but none of them scared me the way this imminent mid-air collision did. I remembered Holly Smith dying in the same area a few years ago, in the same manner, on short final.
I pushed forward on the control column and eased the throttle back. I may have descended but I think I only levelled off – at 500’ at night. I frantically searched out of the left, front and then right windows. I was looking up to the right when the real light source scored a direct hit on my right eye from the ground to my immediate front and right: an extremely bright green laser!
I banked left, which fortunately was in the circuit direction and throttled up to resume climbing. I made a quick downwind call and then called Melbourne Radar to report the threat. The controller alerted a twin-engine aircraft taxiing to depart Moorabbin and another inbound from Essendon. I made a second call, apologising for the panicked voice in the first call, saying that I thought I’d been about to have a mid-air collision – the controller dismissed the apology – and I offered to go around again to pinpoint the offender.
Once again, as I passed through 500’ the laser targeted my aircraft. It seemed much brighter than a cheap key-ring laser; this was no dot of light on the ceiling. Air particles scattering some of the beam allowed me to identify the point source of the laser. I reported it as being west of Boundary Road and about a mile south of Lower Dandenong Road and the airport boundary, to the right of the 17L centreline. The controller was quick off the mark. On my last circuit I saw a police car racing into the housing estate. The offender decided not to target me a third time.
I’ve since been advised to switch off my external lights if it happens again, because the guys with the lasers won’t be able to see me. Then again, neither will other pilots!
Let me assure the dickhead with the laser: it is very dangerous to shine one at an aircraft, especially one at low-level. The distraction and the potential blinding, even if momentary, could cause the pilot to fly into the ground.
Driving home I found myself mentally composing my eulogy. It was my 27th wedding anniversary the very next day. It was nice to celebrate it and look forward to the 28th.
Pilots encountering a laser should report it to the ATSB. Readers wondering who Frederick Valentich was can visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentich_disappearance for more information.
Do you have a ‘My Story’ to get off your chest that could help others to learn from your experience? All authors published in this section receive a Command Flight Planner valued at $375. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or post to Australian Flying, GPO Box 606, Sydney NSW 2001.
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