Cancel, night flight.

Today was the first time I could schedule a solo flight. While Aimee’s schedule has gotten more flexible, it’s also gotten less consistent. Also, the club planes have been busier, so scheduling has been a challenge. Since I didn’t want to drag on too long, Gene and I scheduled our first official dual night flight for tonight.

I made my way to the airport around 1pm when Gene had a scheduled dual flight with another student. The wind was playing games with me, so I wasn’t sure I’d be flying. Another instructor who had just finished a lesson suggested it probably wouldn’t be much fun since it was pretty rough. I decided to scrap my 1pm solo flight, and I’m glad I did. I hung out at the airport for a couple hours to read some material Gene had for me on night flight. I checked the wind several times during those two hours and it was anywhere from calm to 11 knots gusting 14 at about 30° across the runway. While I may have been technically allowed to fly solo under club rules, it had been two weeks since I last flew and I wanted to practice short/soft field landings. That would not have been pretty.

I went back home for a couple hours to have an early lunch and returned to the airport to meet with Gene at 6pm. We scheduled 2.5 hours so that we could go over some details on night flight before we flew. We went over mostly stuff that I already knew from my reading and from ground school, but it was good to review and refresh my memory: runway lighting, airport beacons, airplane lighting features and FAA requirements, night vision – how bright light affects our eyes at night, and emergency landings.

After our 45 minute chat, I headed out to preflight in the dark, cold night. It was well below comfortable, but not freezing. I had a large flashlight in one hand which left me only one hand to do the work. It wasn’t too bad, but it took a little longer. We strapped in and discussed what we’d be doing: a few maneuvers in the practice area and then a bunch of landings, with and without the landing light and with and without sufficient instrument lighting.

Though runway 21 had been used all day long, nobody was around and the winds were reported calm, so we just went to 3 to save time. It felt good to finally be off the ground after two weeks of cancellations. The runway edges are well lit, so it’s not hard to take off, but once you leave the ground, it’s a little like flying into a black hole. Instrumentation becomes more important when you lose your normal VFR references, like the ground and a horizon.

With the cold smooth air, the plane really performed well. Climbout was fast and it took little time to get to 3,000 feet. A few miles to the west and it was time for a couple steep turns. I slowed the plane down to 95 knots, we cleared the area, and I made a smooth left turn to 45° “Wow. That’s so nice compared to what I’ve been dealing with today”, Gene said. I inquired, not really knowing what he meant. He had two previous flights today, one with a fairly new student and another with a certified pilot that is coming back from time off and just doesn’t seem to “get it”. I took that as a compliment. All of this went on while I held back pressure and bank angle, looking around at what little horizon I had and checking the instruments. At about 20° before a 360° turn, I started to roll out and realized I was going to come up short. I consistently roll out early and miss my heading. I did not, however, gain or lose any altitude and the turn was otherwise very well executed (finally). An immediate turn to the right and we continued to chat. A short time later … “and there it goes.”, Gene said. Oops. I rolled out much too late. “I was too busy chatting and didn’t pay attention.” He didn’t seem to care since it was also an otherwise smooth turn. I really need to work on getting the heading right, though, or it’ll burn me on the test.

We continued with some slow flight. I was to fly straight and level with no flaps and the stall warning buzzer sounding. I went through the steps to get there and we were quickly flying at 40-ish knots indicated airspeed and a constant buzzer. He had me add flaps; first 10°, then 20°, all the time maintaining the proper pitch to keep the buzzer going and power adjustments to maintain altitude. With 20° flaps, I made a few shallow bank turns (adding power to keep from losing altitude and/or stalling). Everything was working out very well; Gene’s silence said it all.

Enjoying the city lights of Pittsboro, we noticed that we were not moving in the direction we were headed. There was a significant wind from the southwest. Gene had me turn into it and continue super-slow flight. We were barely moving over the ground. Then I added full power and slowly retracted the flaps while keeping the buzzer going; a challenge that Gene said many pilots have trouble doing without stalling. I did very well, thank you. I enjoy the challenges of slow flight. There’s a lot of coordination involved and it really tests one’s skills and understanding of flight. At full power and the buzzer going, we had a rather high nose up attitude. As we looked down, it appeared as though we weren’t moving at all over the ground! The headwind was strong enough and our horizontal airspeed was slow enough to give us ground speed of nearly zero. Had the wind been much higher, we could’ve flown backwards.

Enough goofing off. I followed with a couple stalls, both power off and on and one while in a turn. Recovery went well and it was time to head back to the airport for some landings. We decided to use runway 21 given the winds aloft, so I started a descent and planned to enter the pattern on a midfield crosswind leg. The wind was so great, that I had to point the nose at the city of Sanford, several miles sound of the airport, to keep from getting blown too far north. It was very noticeable at night, but I wonder how it would’ve appeared during the day with more ground reference.

We entered the pattern and headed downwind for runway 21. My first approach was a little messy. The winds were really pushing us, requiring nearly a 20° heading difference in our heading and ground track. Plus, runway 21 doesn’t have instrument approach lights and only two of the eight or more green threshold lights were working. That made it difficult to tell were the end of the runway was. My first landing, with landing light, wasn’t too bad, but I rounded out a little hight. I kept a little power to keep from dropping hard. Night landings have to be to a full stop (stop and go is fine) to be counted, so we stopped in the middle of the runway, chatted for a couple seconds about the view of the runway lights, and then took off again.

We went around for seven landings total. Once we turned around and used runway 3 to see what the wind was doing. I overshot final a little and the wind kept us high and fast, so we turned back around for 21. There was nobody in the pattern and nobody in the area. In fact, we didn’t hear a single radio call for Sanford the entire flight. Because of that, we got a little slack on making our own calls and we took advantage of the runway, making U-turns in taxiways and on the runway, taking off at a taxiway intersection instead of at the end of the runway, and stopping on the runway for a short discussion after a landing. I attempted one landing without a landing light and it didn’t go so well. I rounded out early and just plain couldn’t tell what was going on once I was in the flare. The runway lights were of little use other than the ones directly to my side. Despite that, my landing wasn’t too bad. I think Gene may have assisted a little when he thought we were drifting too far to one side just before touchdown. I followed that with a no landing light takeoff. I could still see the centerline, and keeping the runway lights even on both sides wasn’t difficult, so it went well.

The strangest thing that we experienced in all of our laps was the winds aloft vs. the wind at the runway. Once we hit about 300 feet above the runway, the wind, while still smooth, was pretty strong and required the 20° crab angle I mentioned above. However, once we were on final and got below 300 feet, it was calm. Other than it being more difficult because of the darkness, landings we pretty easy and required no crosswind adjustments. Very strange.

The whole flight went very well; much better than I expected for flying in the dark after two weeks off. After 1.4 hours, I’m at 42.7 hours total. I’ll try to get a couple solos in over the next week, but a week from this coming Tuesday I have my first dual cross country flight scheduled. We’ll be heading to Virginia (just over the border), then to an airport north of Durham, then back to Sanford… weather permitting.