First Night Flight! by Dane Spearing

I had my first night flight last night and it was a BLAST! I managed to get all three night flight requirements for my PPL training on that one flight: x-country, 10 night landings, and 3+ hours of night flying.

My CFI and I took off from Los Alamos, NM (LAM) at around 9:00 pm MDT Weds, 8/26/98 for a x-country up to Alamosa, CO (ALS), which is about 100 nm away. Right after takeoff while I was setting up my first checkpoint, I learned something very important about night flying: IT’S DARK!!! Now, that may sound really silly (of *course* it’s dark you dummy, it’s *night* time!), but it has a *huge* impact on what you can choose as checkpoints! Road intersections, tank farms, hills, etc, are all no good ’cause you can’t see ’em! And here in northern New Mexico, there just aren’t all that many towns to use as checkpoints. Thus, pilotage becomes a nearly useless means of navigation unless you know for certain that that bunch of lights waaaaaaay out there on the horizon is in fact such-and-such a town. Otherwise, it’s just a sea of blackness below you out here. On the other hand, the view of the stars, milky way, and occasional meteor was absolutely breathtaking. That and the fact that you can see other traffic something like a bazillion miles away.

I found that dead reckoning and use of VOR’s and NDB’s becomes vital. I’ve been very much a “pilotage” kind of navigator thus far. Being a geologist by training and education, I’m quite good at reading topo maps and figuring out where I am (and a sectional is nothing more than a topo map with some strange crimson symbols and funny numbers and lines on it, right?!?). Thus, this night flight was vital in that it forced me to navigate by dead reckoning and using the VOR and NDB.

Well, after arriving safely in Alamosa (thanks to the nearby ALS VOR and the fact that it’s the only big bunch of bright lights in San Luis valley), I got to shoot my first night landings. It wasn’t as scary or as difficult as I thought it might be. It took me a couple to readjust my depth perception and sense of distance at night, but I don’t think I did too badly. After a brief break, I shot a few more, and then my CFI said “Okay, we’re going to do the next landing *with out* the landing light. You have to judge the distance of the runway below you using only the runway lights.” He commented that the best way to do this given that you can’t actually see the runway surface below you is to rely heavily on one’s peripheral vision to see the runway lights and to “feel” one’s way down to the runway. As strange as it may sound to “feel” one’s way down to the runway, it actually worked! My CFI said that it was one of the best landings I’d done to date, and he suggested that perhaps for all future landings I should just close my eyes since I clearly did better not actually being able to see the runway surface.

Actually, I learned a very valuable lesson from that “no landing light” landing (and this has been said numerous times on this newsgroup before): PATIENCE!!!! Since I couldn’t actually see the runway surface, I tried to keep the plane off the surface as long as I could and settle it down very gently. This is, of course, what you’re supposed to do during the day as well, but it apparently took a night landing for me to really internalize this. Well see if I can apply this to my next day flight.

Anway, after doing a bunch of full stop landings at Alamosa (which, incidentally has a long enough runway to do a full stop and then take off again without any taxiing – makes those “full stop” landing requirements a bit easier), we headed for Taos, NM (SKX) to shoot a few landings there. Taos has a *much* shorter and narrower strip, so I totally misjudged my first descent, came in way to high, and ended up having to dump full flaps (40 deg) and fly almost straight down (or so it felt) to make the first landing. (I usually like to make landings with as little flaps as necessary, 0-20 deg.) I only bounced a little. The second trip around the pattern, however, wasn’t so bad and the landing was fair.

Finally, we headed back home to Los Alamos. The strangest thing was that I almost missed turning for final at my own airport because things just didn’t look familiar at night. Weird.

Total flight time: 3.6 hours. 10 full-stop night landings. 214 nm round-trip. Arrived back home around 12:30 am MDT.

Well, after refueling the plane and tying it down, my CFI said, “Why don’t you reserve the plane for a couple of hours early Friday or Saturday morning. I think we’ll go down to Santa Fe (SAF) so you can solo.” WOO HOO!!!! After about 25 hours of dual and 107 landings (I counted) it looks like I’m finally going to get to solo (weather permitting….does anyone know what sort of sacrifice the weather gods like this time of year?!?).

All in all, a very valuable and exciting learning experience.

Now, if I can just keep main-lining the caffine today to stay awake.

Dane Spearing