So all day yesterday, I sat around reading Forever Flying by Robert Hoover. I should probably not read books like that when I have the keys to an airplane, because I start feeling like I need to do more with it, to push myself a bit. And sure enough, towards evening, I decided that I needed to fly. But I didn't just want to fly, I wanted to do something a bit more challenging. A cross-country flight? A night flight? I've got it! A cross-country flight at night! THAT was what I wanted to do. Let's put some real time in the log book.
I ooked on my maps and decided that Luray, Va (LUA), home of Luray Caverns, was just far enough to count as a cross-country flight. The local flight school uses it for that, and I've never been there, myself. Luray sits down in a mountain valley and a straight flight in would necessitate my hopping over a mountain ridge that I really didn't think would be a good idea to tangle with in the dark, but I did a bit more plotting and determined that if I flew to Front Royal(FRR) first, I could, from Front Royal, slide down the valley to Luray while staying between two ridges, meaning that I would't have those nice dark obstacles in my way if I stayed on my plotted course. As an added plus, the map shows a prominent road between Luray and Front Royal that I could just follow back out as an extra navigation aid. Easy Peasy! So with the flight properly planned and the weather checked, I took off and headed sorta southish.
I've been to Front Royal before. It's a neat little country airport and easy to find if you know where to look for it. I dropped in and made a full-stop landing, intending to grab a snack at their FBO, but alas, it was already closed for the night. I did notice some families of geese about mid-way down the runway as I'd come in though. So on take-off, I made a 10-degree flap short take-off to get up in the air quickly before I reached them. I sure don't need a joust with a big angry bird or a bird strike in a remote, closed airport.
Then it was on down towards Luray, another 20 miles past Front Royal. As you can see, the sun is setting beyond the mountains.
And yeah, I need to get some more glass cleaner on that door panel.
Shortly, I was setting up a landing at Luray, shown here in all of it's metropolitan glory.
I landed, then got out and looked around.
OK, I've seen it all now. No one's here and there's nothing to do. I gave the plane another pre-flight check, called Brigid to say hello, and took a few more sunset pictures.
Then I checked out the pilot-controlled lighting to make sure that I could activate the field lights after dark, called Flight Services for a weather update, looked over my departure path to ensure that there would be no unlit surprises in the way and then sat around and played with my iPhone until full dark. IPhones are handy things at times when you forget to pack a book. (I wish I'd brought the Bob Hoover book...)
Finally it was dark. Real dark, I noticed. Luray proper, just to the east of the airport, doesn't seem to cast a lot of light. So I fired up, turned on the field lights, and taxied out to the departure end of Runway 4. I could no longer discern the ridges a few miles away on either side, but this heading of 040 would have me almost perfectly on course back to Front Royal and points beyond. I just had to lift, keep the city lights below me, and follow the road right back out of here.
I found the error in my plan the moment that I rotated and lifted off the runway--there are no "city lights" there for me to orient on! This is farm country, much of it forested, and the few lights from various houses and cars that I could make out around me really weren't enough to give me a sense of orientation. Damn, this was a lot different from just flying over populated areas at night like I've been doing. "No problem," I told myself. "Just climb, keep the wings level, and fly the plan." And sure enough, as I held steady with the artificial horizon on the console and climbed to the altitude that I knew would keep me ridge-free even if I did go off course, I was able to discern the lights of the town of Front Royal twenty miles ahead. Then it was just a matter of keeping the nose pointed at those lights and staying wings-level in a slight ascent. Easy Peasy!
Once past Front Royal, the Shenandoah Valley opens up into the flat farmland that I'm used to, and I could make out the lights of all of the towns that I know. No worries here. So to build some time, I flew around from town to town for a while, just enjoying the sights below. I talked briefly with a helicopter who was inbound for Winchester as I was leaving that area because I wanted to make sure that, for noise abatement purposes, we knew right were each other was at. (A Cessna smacking a helicopter can make quite a lot of noise, or so I'm told.) Neither one of us manged to spot the other, but with proper altitude separation, we passed each other without incident in the same patch of sky. Finally I brought my plane back into my home airport, set it down, taxied over to my tie-down area, and put it to bed with 2.4 hours added to the logbook, All cross-country time and 1.3 of it night-flight. More importantly, I learned a bit more, and learning is the whole point of trying new things.