Saturday, April 27, 2013

Night flight

Out to the airport tonight. Weather was good. Time for a re-do on last week's aborted night flight.

At full dark, I pre-flighted my plane and started it up. The airport tower was already shut down for the night and the FBO was closed. I was the only one on the civilian side of the field as I began my taxi roll. It was pretty dark out there, but seven clicks of my radio on the tower frequency brought all the lights on courtesy of the airport's Pilot-Controlled Lighting system. That never ceases to put a smile on my face as with one button, I'm able to turn on a strip of lights two miles long. I am the god of light as I taxi to the far end of the runway and do my mag checks and other last-minute tests to ensure that my winged steed is ready to go. Then we're off.

I head back east, drawn by the bright lights of the local race track. I fly over and look down, and the stands are about half full as the horses are walking around the circuit. I settle into an orbit around the track, wanting to see them run. I've head of aircraft flying a "racetrack pattern" but this is the first time I actually flew one over a real race track. I circled for a few more minutes as they put the horses in the starting gate, and I imagined that I probably hacked off more than a few people, but dammit, I wanted to see one horse race. Out of respect for the people who probably don't care for plane noise, I stayed up at two thousand feet until they put the horses into the starting gate, and then I dropped a little lower as a bunch of little horse-shaped black dots broke out of the gate and ran around the track. Eventually, as I'd expected, one of them won. Yay, horse! Satisfied, I moved on before the track authorities hauled a Surface to Air Missile launcher out of one the stables.

I flew around the county for a bit, conscious of the fact that I am in a large valley with unlit ridges to both sides. I daylight, they're easy enough to spot, but now it's dark and I'm not really up for a game of "find the mountain" tonight so I stay back over town lights for a while and then head back to the airport. My GPS brings me to the spot where the airport should be, but it's gone dark again. I key the radio: "Click, click, click, click, click, click, click!" Presto! A major airport bursts into being, complete with taxiways and approach lights. That never gets old, Not ever.

I settle into the pattern and knock out five landings to keep my night proficiency up. Since there's no one in the tower or in the area flying, I alternate left and right approaches in, calling all of my pattern legs over the radio just in case someone else is up flying around. On the fourth go-around, the field lights, being on a timer, all went off again as I looked away for a moment. Looking back, I was like, "hey, where'd the airport go?" A few more clicks of the radio turned them back on and I finished my flying up, taxied back in, and shut down. Then I just sat there in the cockpit, watching the stars as the gyros spun down. Night hours logged: 1.3.

Night flying is different from day flight. For one, it's dark out. But aside from that, the air tends to be calmer, and the radios are a lot quieter. It's tricky too, because you don't have ground and sky and a solid horizon. There are bright lights on the ground from buildings and cars (the cars are the ones that are moving) and on a clear night, you have stars above. You really have to pay attention to the instruments more than you would during day flight, and be alert for signs of vertigo, but these differences are why I'm out practicing.
A wise old pilot once told me that if God had wanted man to fly at night we would be sleeping hanging upside down in caves. It is an unnatural act, he said. That may be true, but sometimes my long cross-country flights have met with en route delays and brought me into my destination airports after sunset. If that's going to happen, I need to be capable of dealing with it. That aside, I like the unique challenges and just the change of scenery from day flight. The rental place at this airport never let us have the planes after dark, but now that I'm blessed with my own, there's no reason not to take it out at night and keep my night currency up.

Besides, now I know that I can take a date to the horse races without having to pay admission.


  1. You're having way too much fun. :)

  2. Good for you, keeping up currency IS important!

  3. Saw this and immediately thought of you:

  4. Currency can't be stressed enough. Good for you and beautiful picture of your bird.

    I had a student who I was training at a small rural airport, just a hobby student, not my vocation at the time. There was almost no traffic at this place so he asked me what to do if he came into the pattern and there was another airplane. I jokingly said "just get on the radio and say, "aircraft in the pattern at _____, WTF???"

    Later, after he got his license and was night current, I'm at the drive in across the street from the airport with a bunch of friends watching some Saturday man movie, and here comes a plane on a 45 for the downwind at the airport across the road. We have a scanner so I tune in. I also see ANOTHER set of landing lights. Sure enough I hear my former student "Airplane at the pattern at _____, WTF?"


  5. Brigid: Oh, that's funny! I bet you don't give those instructions again.

    My only night night flight in a Cessna 150: Immediately after I ask my pilot buddy "Um, why is the moon way down there?" BANG! I didn't know his eyes could get that big. We figured it had to be a bird strike. We didn't die so the moon musta been where it shoulda been.