As the sun set, I did a final check of my supplies. Flight plan,
sectional, watch, headlamp with a red bulb, bottle of water and a
granola bar. And tonight I was going to have dinner at 3500 feet with
the twinkling lights of California below me. FAR 61.109 requires
private pilot applicants to have 3 hours of night flight training (in
the appropriate category and class of aircraft) that includes 1 cross
country flight of over 100nm total distance and 10 takeoffs and 10
landings to a full stop at an airport. And tonight was my first taste
of flying at night.
I went to the West Valley Flying Club (www.wvfc.org) in Palo Alto just
a bit after 7pm to meet up with my instructor, Josh Smith. Honestly I
was a bit nervous about this flight. Not only was I going to get my
first taste of flying (and landing!) at night, but I was also going to
have to navigate as well. Well, as Josh says, go big or go home! And
tonight was going to be a big night.
We were slated to fly that night from Palo Alto Airport (PAO) to
Castle Airport (MER), just outside the town of Merced. And as apart of
my preflight checklist, I was tasked to call up 1-800-WX-BRIEF to get
a thorough briefing that included weather, winds aloft at the altitude
I was going to be flying at, any adverse weather conditions, and
special notice to airmen (NOTAM). And for the first time in my
training, I had a NOTAM that could directly affect my flight.
Apparently the 11,802 foot runway at Castle Airport was closed for
repairs. Well, normally that is not a problem, except Castle does not
have any other runways to land on. So, the FAA authorized a taxiway to
be used as the temporary runway. Toss in a slew of closed taxiways and
other restrictions, and it was enough to make any pilot a bit nervous.
Add to the fact I have never been to this airport, and I would be
tasked with finding it in the dark AND landing safely at night. This
should be quite challenging. But there is no way Josh would allow a
student pilot to go and take this on as his first ever night flight
right? Go big or go home! And that’s why he’s the big cheese.
So with Josh’s vote of confidence in my corner, I eased up a bit on
the nerves. A quick review of my flight plan, and then it was time to
preflight the plane in the dark. In addition to my regular preflight
tasks, I had checks to verify that my position lights, landing lights,
strobes, and dashboard lights were working. The little pink left in
the sky had gone away really fast. But we jumped in the plane and I
fired up my fancy headlamp. Preflight done, and it was time to taxi.
At least I was familiar with my local airport I knew where to go like
the back of my hand. With hardly any airplanes flying, I was
immediately cleared to take off. And with that I was on my way.
I was surprised to see how calm it was up there in the dark. Below me
there were streaks of thousands of little red and white lights
belonging to commuters stuck in traffic trying to get home. And there
I was flying freely above them in the black abyss. But that moment of
reflection passed too quickly as I verified my altitude and heading.
Navigating at night presents the obvious challenge of not being able
to look out and easily identifying where you are. Normal green and
brown mountains that stood out against a deep blue sky were now black
on black. Fields with rivers were just a continuous blanket of
darkness. And so tonight my dead reckoning skills were going to be
tested. I navigated from one lighted city to another all the while
looking out for other flying aircraft. Flicking my headlamp on to
glance down at my map to see if I was on course. Glance down, glance
up, back down again, and hope my night vision does not deteriorate.
And after what seemed like hours, I came to what I thought was 10
miles from the town of Merced. Of course I was not 100% sure, but I
saw a bunch of lights that looked like the outline of city on my map.
After all, it was dark, and somewhere out there was an airport with a
closed runway that I needed to find and eventually land at. And
finally off in the distance I saw it. A faint blinking white light.
Castle Airport’s tower!! It was exactly 8:53pm. I had been in the air
for nearly an hour and I had finally made it. I contacted Castle Tower
and received clearance to enter the pattern and land on temporary
runway 31…aka the taxiway. As I got closer, I saw the blue outline
of lights that surely was the “runway.” I entered the 45 at a pattern
altitude of 1200 feet. And as I entered the downwind, it was exactly
9pm. Why is that important, well, at 9pm Castle Tower closes. And as I
wished them good night, the lights to the runway shut off! 900 feet
above the ground, the airport simply disappeared underneath me in a
sea of black. Luckily the folks in the tower noticed and in seconds
the lights were back on. Well, let’s just say for those few seconds
the pucker factor went though the roof. As if I wasn’t nervous enough
to land in the dark onto a taxiway, I had to deal with the runway
disappearing. But it was all apart of the experience.
Just like I had done countless times before, I flew the pattern as I
would during the day. 2000 rpm and 1 notch of flaps on the downwind
leg. turn to the left, reduce the RPMs, add another notch of flaps,
watch the airspeed and enter left base. Runway still there? Good. One
final left turn, “Castle traffic, Cherokee 47540 turning final to
temporary runway 31, Castle traffic.” Final notch of flaps, 65 kts,
runway in sight and I’m on a steady, controlled decent. Normally I
would be able to judge how high off the ground I was, but at night, my
depth perception was nearly non-existent and I was relying heavily on
my instruments. Pass the end of the 11802 foot runway and I still
couldn’t tell how high I was off the ground. Cut the power, and flare?
WHAP. Well, I found the ground. It was sloppy, but I landed. And then
taxi back to take off, and repeat 5 more times. Each was just as white
knuckled as the previous. But slowly I was loosening that grip and by
the 5th I was a lot more comfortable in the pattern and that was all
that Josh wanted. With that we announced our departure to the North
and it was time to head back home.
Ahhh…if only that was true. Go big or go home right? Well, no time
like the present to practice a diversion to another airport. “Take me
to Modesto.” And with that simple statement, I flicked my red headlamp
on and started searching for a small dot on a map, calculated the
heading, and distance based of what I thought was my current location.
And in a matter of moments, I was already drifting off course and
entering a slight right bank. Look up, look down, look up, look down.
Look up frequencies, stay level, look up a heading, stay level and try
to identify a landmark outside, look down to see if you can find it on
the map, stay level and at altitude, and back down at the map for what
the airport primary runway is, pattern altitude, stay level, wipe the
sweat off my head. Well, you get the idea. Eventually I got to the
town and circled looking for either a blinking white light or the
runway. Hundreds of lights vs 1. I opted for the light runway. And
then I had yet another epiphany…the tower is closed, and there are
no runway lights on. Cursed runway lights!!! With 5 clicks on the
frequency, the lights came on. And I was a good 5 miles away.
Eventually I called in and landed the plane once again. Taxi back for
take off and time to go home.
Ahhh…if only that was true. “Take me to Livermore.” Well, luckily I
was familiar with the area and knew exactly where the airport was in
relation to the town. But as with flying, there are numerous tasks and
any single one can cause even the best laid plans to go awry.
Especially when you look down at your map and think you’re looking at
Livermore, when really your finger is on Byron. I lined up on the
wrong heading, and dialed in to the wrong frequency. Eventually I
figured it out when the magnetic heading was not lined up to the
runway numbers I was looking at on my map. And all the while, Josh let
me continue. As with any good instructor, he let me make and learn
from my mistakes. Another landing and take off and it was time to go
This time it was for real. “Palo Alto Traffic, Cherokee 47540 over
Leslie Salts, inbound for landing runway 31, Palo Alto Traffic.” And
just like I had done 8 times before, I brought it down. But this time,
it was my best landing of the night. Maybe it was because it was my
home runway, or the fact that I had 8 other times to practice, but I
floated it in.
As we shut down, I logged 2.9 hours and 9 landings. Josh said that I
was a completely different pilot then when I left. Apparently on my
final landing, I was barely holding on to the yoke and was more
confident. If he says so, it must be true, but I think I deserve an
Oscar, because I was just as nervous on that one as I was on the
first. But we survived it and it was one heck of a first night flight.
Go big or go home!