Night Cross-Country

One of the many requirements before taking the final test is to take a cross-country flight at night with the instructor. No solo night flying is required.

Tonight, Gene and I met at 6pm to take care of preflight planning before dark. I did the preflight inspection and we went over the flight plan afterward. At about 7:30, well after sundown, we headed out. The weather was cool and clear. Winds were light and variable at 3,000 feet, so we didn’t even have to bother with wind correction calculations. The only negative is that the moon had not risen yet, so it wouldn’t provide any help with checkpoints.

The flight was from Sanford to VUJ – Stanly County (Albemarle, NC), then to RCZ – Richmond County (Rockingham, NC) and back to Sanford. The last leg to Sanford would be using the Sandhills VOR instead of direct. It’s pretty close to direct, and makes an easy way to know your on course. There were a number of challenges on this flight. First, it was dark, so there were fewer usable checkpoints. Between Sanford and Stanly County there weren’t that many even during the day. We picked a small town and a highway near an airport (which we could also use since the green/white beacon was visible). After takeoff, I had to start figuring out which cluster of lights belonged to which town. It was hard at first, but it got easier as we went along. We were a good 10 minutes into our flight before things settled down so I could call Flight Services to open our VFR flight plan. That went fine. No talking over someone else this time.

A little more than half way to Stanly County, we were not sure if we were on course. Neither of us recognized the light clusters. After a few minutes of looking around, we found the airport beacon to the south and could see Ashboro to the north. Then we recognized the highway and the little town. We were a couple miles north of course, so I corrected to head south. At that point I could see what I was pretty sure were the lights of Albemarle (and I was right), so I knew which way to head.

The second challenge of the night was that Stanly County is a Class D airport, which means it has an operating control tower. It’s only part time, but it was open during our flight. Gene and I talked a little about the procedures and I had read enough about it to have a partial idea of what to expect, but this was the first time I would have to add talking to ATC to the already most demanding part of the flight… approach and landing. At 10 miles out, after having listened to their automated weather information and spotting the airport, I called: “Stanly County Tower, Cessna 4640B, 10 miles east, inbound for landing.” Or something like that. Without delay, I got a response: “Cessna 4046B, […something about the altimeter setting and light winds, and …] report left base runway 22L.” That wasn’t a typo, by the way. He repeated our tail number incorrectly, but I don’t know if Gene noticed, or if it mattered. I responded, “4640B will report left base runway 22L”. Stanly County has parallel runways, 4R / 22L (about 5,000 feet) and 4L / 22R (about 3,500 feet). The short one is used primarily for military training, and we did see a large military cargo plane on the ramp.

As we approached, I needed help from Gene to get oriented to the runway. The surrounding lights were bright and the runway lights were not. I finally figured out where it was, turned directly into a base leg (with a control tower, they can tell you to enter the pattern wherever they like), and reported: “Cessna 4640B is left base runway 22L”. “40B is cleared to land runway 22L”. “Cleared to land 22L, 40B.” That went well, now I had to land the plane… in the dark. The runway lights were pretty dim, so Gene asked the tower for brighter lights, and they obliged. The airport directory said there were PAPI lights to assist with the proper glide slope, but they weren’t there, so I had to use my picture memory to stay on track. I came in very slightly high (better than low, though, especially at night). Roundout and flare and a really smooth touchdown. I couldn’t have done it better during the day.

Right after touchdown, the tower told us to exit at the next left and that’s where I drew a blank. Thinking about it now, I know (and knew) what to say, but I was still concentrating on controlling the plane. Gene responded with something (I don’t know what exactly) and informed the tower we would just be taxiing back for departure. The tower cleared us to taxi back, so I did. We stopped at the hold short line and discussed briefly our next heading and checkpoints and such. When we were ready to go, I called the tower: “40B is ready for takeoff”. “40B is cleared for takeoff runway 22L”. “Cleared for takeoff runway 22L, 40B” And we were off.

Shortly after liftoff, the tower called and mumbled something to us. Gene and I looked at each other; neither of us understood, and I drew another blank on what to say. Gene called back: “Say again, please.” (Duh. I knew that.) “40B state your intentions.” Oh… he wanted to know what we were going to do. That’s something I really should’ve added to the end of my “ready for takeoff” call. Gene replied that we were heading southeast to Richmond County and the tower responded, “Report clear of class Delta airspace.”

A few minutes later, I called again: “4640B is clear of class Delta airspace.” “40B resume own navigation. Frequency change approved.” “Roger. Thank you. 40B”, and that was the last time I would communicate with anyone on the radio during our flight. Good. That was a little stressful… so much going on… and Class D towers are pretty easy and laid back as far as towers go.

We got a little sidetracked enjoying the city lights and ended up a couple miles right of course, but we knew where we were. RCZ is in between two fair sized cities, and those were easy to see with all their lights. Mostly ignoring my calculated heading, I headed toward the city lights and started looking for the beacon. It was nowhere to be found, but I knew we were getting close. Gene suggested I try to turn on the runway lights and see if we could find it then. Click, click, click, click, click on the mic button and we started looking around. About 10 seconds later, “I see it! It’s directly ahead and we’re lined up with the runway.” We were heading 130° straight for runway 13, which is what we wanted. How convenient. I made a call on the CTAF, but there was no traffic to be seen, so I doubt anyone cared. I set up for a straight in approach using the PAPI lights to keep me right on the glide slope. In all the excitement, I forgot to turn on the landing light until I was about a half mile out. Roundout, flare and another smooth landing. Wow! Two very nice night landings.

Nobody was around. We got off at the first exit and taxied back for departure. The next leg would be on the 207° radial of the Sandhills VOR, so a course of 27° and keeping the needle centered is all I needed to do. This was the darkest leg of the trip. There were few lights around and without the moon, there was little to no horizon. There were just enough things around to keep oriented without needing the instruments, but the darkness was a bit eerie. The smooth air that we had the whole night (with only a couple ripples) added to the illusion that we weren’t going very fast. However, the whole night we were running at the yellow line… about 110 knots, or a ground speed of 126 mph. Zoom, zoom.

After a short time on course, we spotted the Moore County airport, which is about 23 miles south of Sanford; we’d gone there for some landing practice once before, so I was familiar with it. As I crossed the VOR, the TO indicator flipped to FROM and I turned to 50° to head straight for Sanford. We talked for a few minutes about what I would do in a partial power failure situation (day or night). The goal is to slow down as needed to keep the plane in level flight (or at least as slow of a descent as possible) and land at the nearest airport. We didn’t practice it, but it sounds simple enough.

We both spotted the Sanford beacon shortly after our talk and headed for it. We lined up for a straight in approach to runway 3. There was no traffic. I clicked the lights on and made a call for final. Sanford’s AWOS was reporting calm winds, but I had to point the nose about 20° to the right to keep the plane tracking toward the runway. It was strange compared to the nose straight in approaches at the other two airports. At about 500 AGL the wind became calm. Roundout, flare and an unbelievable third smooth night landing. Woohoo! We taxied back and that was that. I called Flight Services to close our flight plan and we had a short post-flight briefing. Gene thought it went really well, as did I. He even thought my radio work at Stanly County was fine, but I wasn’t entirely pleased with it.

The 160-ish mile trip only took 2 hours, which puts me at 50.4 hours total. The three landings finishes my night landing requirements, so no more night flights are required. The next step will be a dual flight into Class C airspace to get practice with a busier towered airport. After that I’ll be ready for a couple solo cross-country flights and more solo maneuvering practice. I still need a couple hours of instrument training, but after that will be preparation for the checkride.