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A Character-Building Night Flight

A Student Pilot Recalls A Night Flight with a CFI and a CFI-in-training into KRNO

After a couple months of doing hardly anything but touch-and-go’s, sporadic flights, and passing my written exam, my instructor and I had a sit down talk.

A Little Background on My Flight Training

My flight training hasn’t been progressing as it should because I’m unable to get my medical certificate. Well- not unable, but it definitely hasn’t been easy. I have faced roadblock after roadblock due to a condition I have and the medication I have to take for it. Though FAA approved, the medication’s potential side effects apparently warrant a thorough battery of neuropsychological testing that’s costing me a few thousand dollars. As I’ve complained previously, as a student pilot with student loans, I don’t exactly have a few thousand dollars just lying around. Currently, I’m running a GoFundMe to try and raise money to fund this wildly expensive testing, but even trying to find a qualified test proctor near me with open appointments in the next six months has been a struggle.

I would be lying if I said the thought of giving up aviation hasn’t crossed my mind (generally when looking over my finances…), but I know I couldn’t go back to a world without flying. Becoming a student pilot and experiencing all that I’ve had has changed me and the way I process things in remarkable ways, and I can’t imagine a life devoid of early morning pre-flights, the smell of Avgas permeating everything I own, the pilot lingo and radio chatter… I suppose it will suffice to say I am deep in love with aviation and it’s way too late to climb out now.

Switching It Up with a Night Flight

Anyway, a while ago, my primary instructor Russ and I decided that to save money, we’d stick to flying once a week and keeping my basic skills in shape until I get my medical certificate and can fly solo. At this point, I have close to 30 hours logged flight time, and my instructors and I are all confident that once I can legally solo, I can wrap everything up and take my check ride within a few weeks.

student pilot sitting in a l-39 albatros fighter jet at the reno air races night flight
I asked nicely and got to sit in a L-39 Albatros before they raced at the Reno Air Races.

Well, I went to the Reno Air Races and to put it bluntly, it lit a real fire under my ass. I decided I wasn’t content with just maintaining my skills; I mean, I could be knocking out night flight time, instrument work, dual cross countries, unusual attitudes; all of the dual flight instruction requirements to get me truly prepared to take my check ride as soon as I can legally fly alone.

So I approached my instructor with this idea, he agreed, and we scheduled a night flight into Reno-Tahoe International Airport. My first, real night flight. My first time in controlled airspace. My first time talking to controllers and Norcal Approach. It was an exhilarating, if not slightly nerve-racking idea.

Dual-Purpose Utilitarian Flight Training

To make things more interesting, we decided to add a third party: a 24 year old commercial pilot named MacKenzie who recently joined our flying club to pursue her CFI. With Russ also acting as her primary instructor, he thought this could be a great learning experience for us both. For me, see aforementioned list of “firsts.” For MacKenzie, she’ll get to practice teaching me and watch Russ instruct me as well.

For anyone not familiar with the high desert of Nevada, just east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the winds here are a bit… interesting. Mountain wave, microbursts, and of course the fun convective turbulence that we get when it’s hot all combine to make some of the flights here real character building experiences. Luckily for us, it was calm in the morning and not too hot, so by the time we got up in the air around 7PM, it would be lovely and smooth. Right?

Night Flight Pre-Flight

At 6:40PM while it was still light out, I crossed the tarmac to meet up with Ol’ 4566R, the Piper Cherokee 140-160 I’ve

night flight preflight
Cherokee at sunset during the pre-flight.

been training in, and of course, my close personal friend. I couldn’t help but pause and admire the ghostly moon that seemed to appear out of nowhere amongst the flurry of color the sunset cast over the rolling hills and jagged peaks of the high desert. And of course, all airplanes look especially gorgeous at sunset. Pictures were taken, sighs were made.

Enough of that. I peeled the cover off Romeo and began the pre-flight. As usual, the airplane looked wonderful despite being shared amongst a growing number of students. Bryan and I had replaced the landing light earlier that day, and everything else was perfect and ready to grace the skies. I heard the sound of tires and turned to see Russ pulling his electric car up behind me, just as I finished the pre-flight and was double-checking the frequencies I had for Norcal and Reno Tower.  That car is incredibly quiet and it always catches me off guard!

Russ and I chatted as MacKenzie walked up behind us, flight bag in hand. It was time to roll! It was incredibly windy and pretty cold, so I was in a hurry to get inside the cockpit and shut the door. I climbed into the left seat with Russ to my right, and MacKenzie in the back for the flight there. Before we left, we thoroughly went over the plan for the evening as we waited for it to get a little darker.

The plan: do a couple stop-and-go’s here at KMEV, take a little jaunt over to KCXP and do a few landings there, then fly with Norcal on our way to KRNO, where we would do one full-stop landing, debrief, and swap seats so that MacKenzie can fly back.

Cross-Control Complications

On the takeoff roll, I was getting pushed around by the wind, which was reported to come from 010 but somehow felt like a direct gusting crosswind on runway 34. Hmm…

We got off the ground and entered the pattern for our first landing. The approached wasn’t as stabilized as it should have been; my cross-controlling could use a little work and I hadn’t flown in three weeks or so by this point, but we landed and successfully made another blustery take off. After another lap around the pattern, it was dark enough to be truly “night.” I’ve only ever flown at dusk, and wow. Flying at night is beautiful and you can see traffic really easily, but man oh man, watching that runway suddenly appear in the beam of your landing light what feels like just seconds before impact is unnerving as all get out. So, flying at night: cool. Landing at night: certifiably freaky.

Night Flight: Inside the Cockpit

Before we continue, here’s a glimpse into the actual experience of being in the cockpit. Russ is a very enthusiastic instructor who (I’ve learned through his CFI lessons with MacKenzie) believes the best method to instructing and keeping students comfortable in the cockpit is to be constantly talking and teaching. So, Russ is letting us know about how mountains look at night and the different types of runway lighting and distractions, MacKenzie is occasionally interjecting teaching tips (stay coordinated, etc.), and Russ will follow up his instructions to me by explaining them to MacKenzie. So, there’s a lot of chatter, only some of which is what I consider “actionable” and thus worth listening to while flying. In addition to all that, Russ has the habit of adjusting things (checking light switches, etc.) and using the controls (flaps and trim mostly) while I’m flying. I know he is trying to help, and likely thinks this is what CRM for students is, but I find it somewhat aggravating. I try to gently tell Russ this through comments like, “It’s okay, I got it,” or “I can handle that, thanks.” How am I supposed to learn how to manage all the different elements of flying if my CFI is doing half of it for me? Top all that off with the fact that my night vision was constantly interrupted by Russ shining his flashlight at the switches and control panel, and the situation was starting to cause me some tension.

Carson Airport Earns It Reputation for Bizarre Winds

Now, off to KCXP! I’ve landed there only a couple times, and the main stress then was that the traffic pattern was chock-full of both student pilots and powered hang gliders with awful radios. This night, we were the only ones in the sky, but the wind was another story. It was gusting hard and fast enough to sporadically trigger the stall warning light when we were in the pattern at about 100 knots!

The pattern is a right hand pattern because the airport is backed up against a small mountain, putting it essentially in a bowl. Carson is locally infamous for troubling and unpredictable winds, and it definitely earned its reputation.  With full cross controls, I managed to keep the airplane over the runway (most of the time), and plop it on. The only thing dented, of course, was my pride, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t sting! We stopped and taxied back around so I could collect myself. After an unnervingly difficult takeoff, I entered the pattern determined to redeem myself. Apparently, this was not in the cards.

Neglecting Take-Off Checklists for a Night Flight and a Close Call

Once I climbed up to pattern altitude, I went to adjust the trim. Without looking up, I tried to grab the trim screw, and it wasn’t where I expected. I looked up and chuckled. “Well, that’s why the takeoff was so weird!” I said. I didn’t adjust the trim for takeoff. This was frustrating for two reasons: firstly, I should know better. Secondly, the reason I didn’t trim is probably because when Russ retracted the flaps for me after landing I assumed he did the trim as well. That made me frustrated with myself, with Russ, and with the dang wind.

The second pattern was worse than the first. I didn’t want to interrupt Russ’s talking with MacKenzie, so I didn’t make radio calls and start the landing process when and where I would normally, which resulted in a really long downwind leg and hardly any base, to compensate for the wind. Final felt good, nice and stabilized, until we got over the fence. Then suddenly, the wind started blasting us from the other direction, pushing us completely to the right of the runway at about 10 feet over the ground. My heart started thumping- this was my first experience behind the controls feeling real fear. I started to imagine explaining the accident to my flying club… and then suddenly, the wind let up and Russ got on the yoke, and we wrangled it back over the runway (barely), landing close to the edge, but safe.

“That’s enough of that, I think. Let’s get out of here,” Russ said.

I couldn’t agree more.

Night Flight into Reno International

I was so anxious to escape those crappy and somewhat terrifying landings that I was actually looking forward to contacting ATC for the first time; something I’ve come to dread. I turned the radio to the frequency to contact Norcal Approach, and after I rehearsed with Russ, I pressed the button and meekly said, “Norcal Approach. Cheroke 4566R…?”

night flight pre flight cherokee at dusk
Right before our night flight, checking the lighting system.

After a moment of silence that seemed to stretch into hours, they responded and asked me to “say again” the type of aircraft. I stuttered out, “Cherokee, uh, Piper Cherokee, PA-28-140.”

I then confirmed my location, altitude, and airspeed, and was given a squawk code. I replied back, “0532 in the box.”

The moment I took my thumb off the button, Russ asked, “In the box? What the heck is that? Where’d you hear that?” Cue mental sigh and a verbal, “Guess.”

MacKenzie started laughing and choked out, “Bryan!”

I started laughing as well, leaving Russ confused at first and then frustrated. “I’m going to kick his butt when we get back!” He said, half-jokingly.

“We need to talk about that,” I said, not joking at all.

Some background…

Because my flight training has been a little sporadic, a lot of my learning has taken place flying with Bryan. Though not technically a CFI, he’s an experienced, knowledgeable pilot who happens to be an excellent teacher. However, sometimes something Bryan told me or taught me is deemed “incorrect” by Russ, who gets defensive when I try and ask him to explain his reasoning. This has been happening more and more recently, culminating in a little frustration on both sides. Earlier that day, Russ told me to forget everything Bryan ever taught me. Not cool, and definitely not going to happen. For an example, things like how close you are to the runway in the pattern (Bryan follows the standard 1 mile rule, Russ wants me to be closer), or even how to shut down the airplane (Bryan says “mixture, master, mags,” Russ says “mixture, mags, master”). Though it’s confusing for me occasionally, it’s taught me to do my own research because no one is perfect, and no one knows everything. I worry more about creating undue tension between my friend and pilot mentor, and my primary instructor.

Back to the Night Flight: Working Out Some Kinks

By this point, I was on final, heading straight in for runway 34. Though it was windy, it was nothing like Carson, and I felt confident and stabilized in my approach. I thought the center line lighting system would screw me up, but it ended up being my best landing of the night! …though in truth, that’s not saying much.

We taxied over to the Northeast hangars and shut Romeo down. While MacKenzie ran off to the restroom, I decided to have a heart-to-heart with Russ.

“Russ, when I question you, I don’t mean to offend you. I’m not sure if it’s the way I say it or my tone of voice, but I genuinely just want to know the logic behind your teachings to help me understand. But there is one thing you need to understand- my flight training has been sporadic, different instructors, months go by in between lessons, I can’t progress because of my medical, and Bryan is the one constant I’ve had throughout. When you get upset and confront him about something that I say, it makes him not want to fly with me anymore, and I do not want to lose that opportunity. Does that make sense?”

Immediately I regretted saying anything. I could tell Russ took it personally, and my goal wasn’t to hurt anyone’s feelings. I apologized, but didn’t retract anything I said. I was telling the truth, and it’s my flight training and future as a pilot on the line.

My First Night Flight and Foray Into Controlled Airspace Comes to a Close

MacKenzie flew us back, narrating everything she did and announcing her intentions like an airline captain- Russ was thrilled and told me to pay attention. I tried, but I was more interested in watching the stars disappear behind the mountains as we descended back into the Carson Valley. The helicopters buzzing around doing night vision training were fun to watch, too! As I got into my car and headed home, I tried to focus on the positive experiences of the night: first, we didn’t crash when I thought we were going to. Second, by the last landing at night I felt I got the hang of it (landing in the dark, that is). Third, I finally got to talk to ATC, which will hopefully help me get over that discomfort in the future. Overall, it was an excellent learning experience, albeit a stressful one. But aren’t all the best ones stressful? These “character building experiences” are the lessons that stick with you, and so I do my best to appreciate each one.

Carly Courtney graduated summa cum laude with her BFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College nestled in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Carly is still there, living the dream writing articles and flying (as a student pilot) whenever she can!