Night Flying

My Time Night Flying

I have plenty of night flying time in my log book. Most of it was accumulated during my time flying for a regional airline several years ago. Probably 60 percent of my total flight time there was at night and I found that I really enjoyed it. The views at night can be stunning and the air was often times nice and calm. It can also be uncomfortable and filled with anxiety when things are not going well.

The turbo prop twin engine EMB120 Brasilia I flew was reliable, stable, capable and a lot of fun to fly. My memories of flying the airplane are plentiful and as I think back on those experiences I smile because it was not only fun but also very rewarding. It was heavy on the controls and challenging to make consistent nice landings but it is an awesome airplane and I really appreciate the chance I got to fly it for a few years.

The memories I seem to most often think about are largely experiences I had while night flying. One such memory was a late night stormy approach down to minimums at Cody, Wyoming. The surrounding terrain is ominous and the area often becomes quite turbulent. The non-precision VOR approach leads you into about a 700-foot decision height and 3 miles or so from the runway. We successfully executed the approach and saw the airport right at the missed approach point as advertised where we started to descend visually toward the runway. Suddenly we unexpectedly lost all visual contact with  the airport and ground as we went back into a cloud we didn’t know was there. We had no choice but to immediately go missed and start climbing back out of that valley. When you are that close to the ground and are on the visual part of the approach a missed approach is not something you are really thinking about.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough fuel to shoot the approach again and still have enough to go to our alternate, which was back to our departure point, Salt Lake. Had we been able to do the approach again we likely would have landed without a problem. Instead, we headed for Salt lake. Passengers were not happy and could not understand why we were returning. The simple fact is it just would not have been safe to do that.

During one flight over southern Idaho during a meteor shower, we must have seen 20 or 30 falling stars. These meteors were so impressive they lit up the entire sky as they streaked toward earth. I have never seen anything like it since. Falling stars were not uncommon but these were unusual and amazing. It was a surreal experience I will not forget.

During one landing just as we were in the flare for landing late one night we were greeted by an incredible crack of lightning striking the ground only yards in front of us. I was taken completely by surprise and was a little unnerved by the experience not to mention temporarily impaired by the bright light from the flash. The cracking thunder was loud enough to plainly hear inside the noisy aircraft. It took a few minutes for my knees to stop feeling shaky.

Flying high over cloud layers at night often presents opportunities for beautiful sights when thunderstorms exist. As lightning strikes occur in the clouds they light up as if someone is flipping a light switch on and off.  Towns below thin cloud layers glow from the city lights below. These are often seen watching from the window of a passenger plane also. The sights while night flying can simply be stunning. The moon and stars shine so bright with no pollution to obscure the view from 25,000 feet.  It truly is beautiful at night and I am lucky to have seen these things.

I haven’t been night current for a couple years mostly because I don’t have many needs that require me to fly after dark anymore and I don’t often go night flying just for fun. I suppose a better way to explain myself not being current is I am not completely comfortable flying at night in a single engine airplane. You can make fun of me and I wont be offended. The truth is, at night your options are reduced when you have a problem. It increases your risk so I usually don’t fly unless I have a specific need.

Recently both my friend Bryan and my son Corey are nearing the end of their flight training and have needed to get the required 3 hours of night flying, so I had to get myself night current again.

So now a couple weeks later I have spent plenty of time in the pattern at Skypark practicing night operations. The new VASI’s at the airport work really well and it was fun to see Corey and Bryan get used to following the path right down to the touch down zone. As is the case with most things in aviation we learn to trust the instruments and equipment. They keep us safe.

We have also flown into the Salt Lake airport a few times at night during the last couple weeks. This is always fun because the approach lights, centerline lights, edge and taxi lights along with the PAPIs, runway end identifier lights, and others combine to make a beautiful sight. It’s an inviting feeling to be guided in to land with the “preponderance of lighting” as it is called. The white and green beacon you can see from miles away does a great job of letting us know where the airport is and the  warm welcoming approach lights offer some feeling of comfort and importance and safety. It’s just one of the cooler things in aviation.

When Corey and I were flying the 150 the other night we had a landing light burn out on the way into the Salt Lake airport. It was a good experience to land without it but the challenge was not really landing. It was much more difficult navigating taxiways and parking areas. Corey had a few moments of stress due to the lack of familiarity and reduced visibility in the area but he did a great job and undoubtedly learned a lot. Having a nice bright landing light and taxi light are really helpful.

An early evening flight on Wednesday night in the 172 with Bryan was nice also. We headed west to Wendover Nevada for his 100 nautical mile dual cross-country at night. Soon after departure I gave him the foggles and began some simulated instrument training. It’s remarkable that a pilot can precisely fly an aircraft by only referencing the instruments. I showed Bryan the scanning techniques and described the general use and interpretation of the attitude indicator as well as the other flight instruments. He did well, flying headings and maintaining altitude and seemed to catch on quickly to the concept of using the attitude indicator for most of the primary flight information. He could also see how the instruments complement each other and provide the information needed to keep the aircraft upright and pointed in the right direction.

Once these basic skills became familiar I added the additional task of navigation. More balls to juggle especially at this early stage of training means there will be some deterioration in the quality of the other jobs being done. Navigation tends to be a necessary distraction and while trying to read the map, tune and identify a VOR and determine our current position, heading and altitude control often suffer. At station passage, the clock should have been started so an arrival time at the airport could be estimated but Bryan was busy with controlling the airplane and missed it. This meant he had to guess when he would be over the airport. Not a big deal in our training exercise but would be much more important in real instrument conditions. It worked out to be a great training opportunity. A few miles out from the airport I had him go visual and let him set up for landing. He did a great job handling the aircraft as he entered the pattern and made a near perfect landing.

The trip back home went very well and offered new training opportunities and even better-simulated instrument conditions because the twilight horizon was no longer visible now that we were heading east and it was darker since it was later in the night. During this phase of flight, I added more to Bryans list of things to do by having him start estimating times of arrival at various checkpoints along the way by giving him time and distance problems. This proved to be valuable training time and as we finished the flight around 10:30 pm I think Bryan had a sense of pride as well as an increased awareness and respect as we put the airplane away.

Night flying is an enjoyable opportunity. It also brings a certain sense of anxiety. Engines never seem as smooth at night and often seem rough. Pilots refer to this condition as “automatic rough”. There are obvious risks flying at night particularly in a single engine airplane. An engine failure is a serious emergency any time but especially at night. Electrical and instrument failures or for that matter any abnormal condition can become disastrous. A pilot must understand the risks and do everything he can to mitigate them. But at the end of the day if we do not expose ourselves to some level of risk we would never do anything. The goal is to become educated, skilled and experienced and become mentally engaged. Establish limitations for yourself. For example, maybe you decide to only go night flying when the moon is out and giving you some visibility. Night flying over a desolate desert on a moonless night may not be a good idea for a non-instrument rated pilot. I have determined that I will not fly single engine aircraft over the mountains at night. I remain in the valleys and where city lights give me some idea of what is below. I generally also stay in familiar territory.

Soon after becoming a flight instructor many years ago, I was giving a student night flying instruction on an October dark night. We were peacefully flying along in northern Utah near the Ogden VOR. Suddenly a loud noise with an associated jolt to the airframe occurred and the windshield became obscured. I was certain the engine had catastrophically failed and that oil was streaming from the cowling onto the windscreen obstructing our view. I had experienced a catastrophic engine failure in a twin a few years before and remembered the incredible amount of oil streaming out from the cowling. This late night condition seemed and felt the same. I was amazed after a few seconds to realize the engine was still running. The gauges all were normal and I began to try to figure out what happened. I shined my flashlight and looked at the leading edge of the wing and quickly discovered the cause. There

I shined my flashlight and looked at the leading edge of the wing and quickly discovered the cause. There was blood, feathers, and entrails covering the inboard section of the wing area. My anxiety was instantly relieved as we turned the aircraft around heading back to the airport. It was difficult to see clearly through the windshield and became even more so as the bright approach lights caused significant glare as we made our final approach for landing.  When we exited the airplane I was surprised to see the extensive damage the Mallard duck had caused. The midair collision obviously was more devastating to the duck but the Cessna 182 sustained some significant damage also. Impact had occurred a couple inches off center of the pointed spinner causing it to be severely distorted, also bending both the forward and aft spinner bulkheads. The duck then hit the upper cowl leading edge breaking the fiberglass formed part of the cowl. Half the duck went inside the cowl and the other half went up to the copilot side windshield and right wing. It was a gruesome scene and the smell was terrible from the cooking body parts on top of the engine. Total damage to the airplane cost $2000 to repair.  Emotional trauma was probably immeasurable. It is one of those stories that is kind of funny now looking back but at the time it really made our hearts start thumping. I will always remember this story. Who would have ever thought a duck would be cruising around at 1500 feet above the ground in the middle of the night?

Things happen. We certainly don’t have control over many things but we do the best we can and take whatever precautions we reasonably can to avoid problems. Ultimately we accept risk in nearly everything we do.

One last story that demonstrates the importance of judgment, knowledge, experience and wisdom. Of which none were my strongest suits on this particular night. I have heard it said that judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment. This story illustrates this principle.

Weather reports indicated decent VFR conditions for a flight from Salt Lake City to Elko Nevada. A flight instructor friend and I had volunteered to arrive in Elko at midnight in a twin-engine Piper Seneca I owned to pick up a batch of human blood after a local gathering of folks finished donating. For us, it was a great opportunity to get free flight time since the organization paid for our fuel. Although I was instrument rated I was not current and quite inexperienced. This flight was intended to help get me current as well as build valuable multi-engine time.

Departing VFR we turned westbound about 11pm. As the city lights grew dim behind us the moonless night over the desert became very black. The only outside reference we had were the lights from the cars below on the freeway and then the city lights in the distance from the little town of Wendover, Nevada.  As we continued westbound past the city the car traffic below became sparse. We were soon in complete darkness with no lights visible anywhere and I was using all my concentration keeping the airplane on heading and altitude with my rusty and limited instrument skills. I was nervous and uncomfortable. Paul, my instructor occasionally shined his flashlight outside and soon he announced we were flying through some light snow. So much for VFR conditions.

I suppose we imagined we would soon be out of these conditions so we pressed on now only 40 or 50 miles from our destination. A couple minutes later Paul said, “We are picking up ice, let’s turn around.” An incredible sense of anxiety passed through me, being terrified of ice. I initiated a right turn and immediately felt overwhelmed as the airplane started to turn and altitude began to wander. Suddenly I realized the airspeed indicator was not working properly and I knew immediately the pitot tube had iced over.  i thought about switching on the pitot heat but disregarded because I was certain it was inop.

My head was throbbing now and I felt as though we would run into a mountain at any moment. This false sense of fear was compounded when I realized I had no idea where I was turning to. I had not noted my heading or set my heading bug to the new heading before beginning the turn. Seconds after starting initiating the turn I felt completely lost and disoriented. It seems so basic now that I would not remember my previous heading, especially since it was almost directly west. I had not really been doing the navigating since I was concentrating mostly on flying while Paul kept track of our position. Stress is an incredible deterrent to rational thinking and until you experience something similar you likely will feel very judgmental about such a lack of awareness on my part. This is why training is so vital. It helps one remain in control while you use your knowledge to perform basic tasks to deal with problems. Paul was my lifesaver and he gave me a heading to turn to, told me to relax about the airspeed indicator and called ATC telling them our general location and that we were VFR in IFR conditions and were in need of some help. The truth is by that time we really didn’t need the help but it felt good to have them at our fingertip. Within minutes the airspeed indicator began working again and soon we saw the very welcome warmth of city lights in the distance.

There was no need to land in Wendover except to decompress and make a phone call to tell people we would not be arriving in Elko. My knees were weak and I was feeling pretty humble so we spent a few minutes on the ground gathering our thoughts.

Looking back, I realize I learned some very valuable lessons with this experience. Here are some of them. You can’t see clouds very well while night flying. Make sure you are current for the kind of flying you are doing. Having help in the cockpit is almost vital especially if you don’t have an autopilot or you are short on experience. Make sure your equipment is operable. (incidentally, when I checked the pitot heat on the ground it worked fine. Imagine that!) Keep track of where you are and your heading. This seems like it would be a no-brainer but inexperience, stress, and problems equal poor performance. Keep your head in the game. Use flight following, know the weather.

This event changed me as a pilot. During the subsequent nights while I unsuccessfully tried to go to sleep, I rehearsed the experience again and again in my mind as I considered how badly the outcome  could have been. Truthfully the incident wasn’t a near death situation. but the feelings I had felt like it was and I recognized how badly things could have gone. Many have lost their lives in similar experiences and I determined that I would learn what was necessary to become a better pilot.

I believe it is by sharing experiences we have others can learn from them. I think often pilots aren’t willing to expose their errors and try to portray themselves as the guy who never makes a mistake. I have been around this business long enough to know that we all carry our share of embarrassing baggage. I choose to tell the story and hopefully someone can benefit from it in some way.

Night flying really is usually a beautiful, surreal experience. I had sort of forgotten this over the past few years by not doing it much. Now that I am current again I will be more prone to keep myself that way and occasionally enjoy the city lights or landing at the big airport. Flying is such a pleasure and a privilege. Every time I fly I learn something new.