Know Your Limitations!
So began another exciting day or must I say night of my flying adventure. Let me confess right at the outset, I have never been and will never be keen about night flying. I am the kind of person that likes to see where I am going. Clear blue skies and a fine sunny day is my kind of day to flying the friendly skies. That being said, I do like to venture out, once every now and then, with a seasoned Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) in the right seat to experience, the deeper darker forces that come into play and make flying all that more challenging than it already is, as is posed by flying a night IFR flight in actual conditions.
It was time for my Bi-annual Flight Review and I had set aside three evenings for a review session with Lee, a CFI at the local flying club. Having just attended a Pilot Refresher Course entitled De’Mystifying Local Weather and Procedures where Lee was one of the pivotal instructors who taught that course, I was excited to be brushing my skills with him. For you see, Lee is not only a certified flight instructor with more than 6000 hours, but also an instructor of a Photography class at a local college. Combining his two passions Photography and Flying, Lee provided a memorable, photographic, real life depiction of adverse weather flying in and out of the local airport including, pictographic options for emergency situations at various stages of a flight. I could clearly comprehend then, the truth behind the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words”.
“I can fly at5:30 on Wednesday but I do want to attend the TRACON meeting at 7:00pm,” Lee had emailed, as I tried to find a time convenient for both of us to schedule a review. “Hmm.” thought, I.“I haven’t done a night flight in ages, maybe time for one.” So we had settled on flying to Santa Maria Airport for the new Radar Service update presentation. The plan was to fly under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) to Santa Maria and back, with the option to cancel IFR if it was a clear night.
Knowing the local weather at San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria we should probably have expected Instrument Meterological Conditions (IMC). The forecast predicted 700 foot ceiling for Santa Maria and an 800 foot ceiling for San Luis Obispo by 9:00pm with visibility of 4 miles and haze. “What are your personal minimums?” Lee questioned me as I apprised him of the weather. “At least 3 miles visibility and 1000 feet ceiling,” I responded. In retrospect, I think I ought to rephrase that to include “in day IFR”.
After several delays including one related to opening the aircraft door, we departed. The flight being short we were very soon approaching the initial fix for entering the ILS approach into SMX. The weather being IFR, it was the perfect spot to be issued a hold. No problem, I needed the practice. As most of my flying is in good weather, rarely has a hold been issued even on an IFR flight. Eventually, after being cleared we executed the approach and landed almost 40 minutes late for the presentation for which I owe Lee a coke!
After attending the presentation, it was time to venture back into the dark cloudy night. I had not flown at night in ages. That combined with an actual instrument flight should make it extremely challenging! The procedure at SMX for procuring an IFR clearance after the tower closes, is to contact LA Center on the ground frequency. Within minutes of departing SMX we were in the clouds. It was dark. Which way was up and which down?
“Watch your heading!”, said Lee. “Oops… without realizing I was turning”. Looking out nothing was certain. I remembered the continuous drilling by my instructors and examiner: it was the instruments inside the cockpit that told you which direction was the sky and which direction the ground. The temptation to look outside was intense. I forced myself to look inside and concentrate on what the instruments were telling me, of keeping the wings level and tracking the radials. They say single pilot IFR was tough. Leave alone single pilot IFR during day and possibly during night, here I was finding it hard even with having my best instructor on board. Fortunately the return to SBP was short. Before we knew it we were at CREPE intersection executing the ILS back to the airport.
Let me be honest. I am a VFR pilot with an IFR rating. I like to see where I am going. Getting in the air with my instructor in extreme conditions I hope will prepare me for that rare, abnormal occasion when something out of the ordinary happens. Otherwise, lush green earth, blue sunny skies, with a touch of white make my day!