LONDON – You’re probably all familiar with those old fisherman’s tales about the fish that got away? Well my story is about the sheep that got away – just after I landed on it.
Before I begin, I should state outright that no animals were harmed in the making of this story – a sheep got severely frightened, and a flying instructor (yours truly) and his student got severely terrified.
My nocturnal tale of horror begins on a night navigation exercise out of Jandakot Airport, Western Australia. Working as a contract flight instructor, I was doing a lot of night flying for the school’s Night VFR rating trainees.
At the time, I scored the bulk of the school’s night flying program, simply because the two resident full-time instructors just weren’t keen about flying single engine aircraft at night. I wasn’t the greatest fan of it either, if truth be told, but I ended up with a truckload of night hours in my logbook as a result. And they gleefully referred to me as “the Nightwatchman.”
On this particular flight – a night navigation exercise – the first waypoint was the remote rural airstrip at Narrogin. The flight out of Jandakot airport is a test of dead reckoning navigation – after flying a back bearing off the Jandakot Non-Directional Beacon (NDB), there was pretty much nothing but darkness for the next hour and a bit, and nothing by way of navigation aids to assist track-keeping.
Navigation was largely by way of distant smudges of light from tiny townsites, and the occasional pinpricks of light from car headlights on the Albany Highway, which ran nearby.
So, it was a Friday night and I was sat slumped in the right-hand seat, listening to the monotone thrum of the 4-seat Cessna 172’s engine and watching my student Justin maintain the aircraft. The air was smooth as a baby’s bum, and from one mile high, the darkened landscape scrolled past slowly underneath the Cessna, as we flew on largely by instruments.
Justin, a budding commercial pilot, was well into his night rating training, so there was very little to say until we approached the Narrogin circuit area, where we would conduct a session of touch-and-go landings.
It was a dark night with no moon, so the approaches to the remote rural strip would be a good exercise – without peripheral lighting, your depth perception goes out the window and the runway lighting seems to float confusingly in the windscreen. it’s quite a disturbing sensation until you get used to it.
From several miles out, we could just make out the runway lighting – Narrogin has pilot activated lighting (PAL), which is tripped by sending a code of ‘blips’ on a discrete VHF radio frequency. Tonight, another aircraft from one of the rival flight schools was already in the circuit, doing the same as us, and the lights were already on when we arrived.
We set up the descent profile and planned the entry into the circuit area. Broadcasting our arrival on the local frequency and sequencing into the circuit for Runway One-Zero, the lights of the other aircraft were easily seen in the perfectly clear night sky.
I recognised the voice from the other aircraft – a single engine Piper Cherokee – as Adrian, an instructor from another Jandakot training outfit.
We settled in and I watched Justin shoot a couple of circuits on RWY10 – with and without the landing light, just to make things interesting.
On the third circuit, I lazily watched the lights of the Cherokee as it bored in on finals. On the downwind leg, I could look across the cockpit and see the lights out on the left-hand side. As we came up abeam the threshold at 1,000 feet, the nav lights of the Cherokee suddenly wobbled crazily, the wings rolling from side to side just as the aircraft passed over the threshold at 50 feet.
I sniggered to myself, picturing Adrian slumped like me in the right-hand seat, only to be scared sh*tless at the last moment by a ham-fisted student. Or so I thought.
The Cherokee executed a go-around and the radio crackled. It was Adrian. “Just for your information, there’s a sheep standing on the southern side of the runway threshold.”
Narrogin airstrip was built in 1942 and originally handled RAAF medium bombers and fighter aircraft during the war. Now in civilian days, they occasionally ran sheep over it during the day. As I recall, the aerodrome chart warns to watch out for livestock.
Justin’s eyes got wide like dinner plates. “Jesus, a sheep!” he said over the intercom. “Do you want to give the circuits away?”
Well I’m no expert in Sheepology, but I’ve seen the way sheep run like buggery when a sheepdog barks at them, so I applied my blinding pilot logic and figured that, having just had a close encounter with a plane at low level, the blare of a Lycoming engine at full throttle on a go-around would have scared the living daylights out of the sheep.
By my reckoning our sheep would be half a kilometre away and still running for his life by the time we crossed the fence on short finals.
“Nah, just carry on the approach,” I replied, unconcerned. “The sheep won’t be there when we get there. The Cherokee would have scared it off.”
Justin, however, was having none of it. “Are you sure this is safe?” he asked again. Strewth, I felt like I was in the backseat of a parked car with a virgin.
“Justin,” I said firmly, “You concentrate on flying the plane and I’ll look out for the sheep.” “Okay,” he responded flatly, “You’re the boss.”
I would be on the “sheep side” of the aircraft as we came down finals, so I assured him I would be checking for the sheep, as the safety pilot. Yeah, right…
Begrudgingly, he set the Cessna up on the approach, rolling out on finals, selecting full flap and deftly switching both the landing light and the taxi light on.
“Are you looking out?” he asked again. “Well I’m not gonna see the bloody sheep up here at 500 feet, am I?” I responded. “You fly the plane, I’ll look out for the sheep when we cross the threshold!”
Photo: Narrogin Gliding Club | Sheep (not to scale) added by author. RWY10 threshold is in top left of shot.
I smirked to myself – still slouched in instructor position, head on the side window, looking down the side of the aircraft in between flicking glances at the instrument panel. “The non-existent sheep,” I thought to myself, “Piece of cake.”
300 feet on short finals. “Do you want me to go around?” Justin’s voice crackles again in my headset, breaking the smooth silence. “No!” I say curtly into the mic, “Fly the approach! Just FOCUS!”
We bore in, committed to the landing. Justin sets the approach up nicely in the dark, and as we drive in towards the threshold, the landing light starts picking up more and more ground detail around the sides of the aircraft.
The next few seconds went in slow motion, and decades later they are etched indelibly in my brain.
Passing over the threshold at fifty feet, the power comes off and the Cessna floats to the touchdown, nose high. I can see the white undercarriage leg and shaped wheel spat out my side window. There is a fuzzy grey-white blob, like a giant cotton ball in the periphery of the landing light’s glare. It is bouncing. Not running, but bouncing like it’s on springs.
My mind still doesn’t register – what the heck is that bouncey cotton ball thing? I am staring, fascinated – as if hypnotised. My logical brain follows the track the bouncey fluffball is taking, and realises it is intersecting perfectly at a right angle with the path that the Cessna’s wheel is taking.
We are on a perfect collision course. I hear the stall warning horn come on as the Cessna loses airspeed. Then it hits me – it’s the sheep!
In one swift movement I’m sitting upright, one hand on the control yoke, the other smacking Justin’s hand off the throttle and slamming on full power.
“SHEEEEP!” I hear myself yelling as the engine roars on full throttle. I’m holding the Cessna just off the stall for grim death, watching the sheep out the side window as we sink slowly onto it.
It passes underneath the wheel and there is the slightest hint of sideways movement. “Bloody hell,” I think to myself, “I’ve just killed the bugger.” Worse still, I wait breathlessly for the aircraft to tip forwards and break both our necks.
It doesn’t. The prop bites and we fly out cleanly. Then Justin’s voice crackles in my headset: “I can see it! It’s run out the other side!”
I set up the climb, retracting flap and trimming the plane up. I mentally say a word of thanks to the Good Shepherd. Justin and I are both sitting in silence, the adrenaline kicking in.
Without a word, I trip the push-to-talk switch and marvel at my cool, carefully modulated ‘pilot voice’ on the radio: “Tango Uniform Tango, for your information, we’ve sheared the sheep and its now headed for the northern side of the runway.”
Adrian acknowledges, highly amused. Ha-bloody-ha. Justin has had quite enough: “Can we call it a night for circuits?”
I decide discretion is the better part of valour and we depart Narrogin, leaving behind one confused sheep – possibly with a rubber tyre track on its back, and a story to tell its mates when it finally gets back to the flock.
Actually, in hindsight, I’m not sure which one of us felt more sheepish that night.
Pure Flying: From a pilot’s perspective, regardless of whether the road leads to a career in military or civilian flight, we all learn some fundamental “stick and rudder” basics. I hope you enjoyed the first of my series on the highs (and lows) of pure flying!