Night and Solo

“So, you are going to do it cold turkey?” asked Linda
“Yes, how hard can it be? I am going to be in the pattern…” responded I.

The last time I did a night flight (solo or otherwise) was 4 years and 10 months ago! While night flying can be fun, it is not a favorite time for me. Although with a good instructor  or co-pilot, I love to get the experience to do some night flying!

It was a picture perfect fall day: warm, clear (for now) and busy. Earlier in the afternoon, Linda and I had headed out to the practice area, so I could practice my commercial maneuvers while she played safety pilot. It was a busy Sunday afternoon. After some steep turns, chandelles, lazy eights and steep spirals, we had returned comfortably back to the airport.

An hour later, after the sun set and evening twilight was about to set, I hopped back in the aircraft for some pattern work to execute some night landings and edge my night solo time closer to that required for a commercial rating.

It was a partly cloudy, and the waning crescent moon was not visible. I had deliberately departed prior to the official start of night time, so I could adapt easily to the night conditions.  I looped around the pattern and decided to execute a touch and go for round one, as I adapted to night flying. Unfortunately calm winds meant runway 34R was in use, which meant right pattern!

Not perfect, but I retracted the flaps, full throttle and I was off again, climbing to 900ft before turning crosswind and continuing to turn downwind as I eased back on the throttle to level-off at 1,200ft reporting midfield as directed by ATC. I had hoped for an easy breezy night flying experience, but…. yes there is always a but about flying 🙂 34L was so busy that the controller had promptly told people to call only when ready to depart. There were several people arriving at the airport.

“Make a left 360 and report joining downwind,” commanded ATC.

As I looped around the 360, I realized I was turning too steeply, getting too close to stall speed and I had to be careful or I would stall! One trick I had picked up from my recent instructor, was to tune in the destination airport into the GPS, even when I am doing pattern work. Believe me when you fly in the congested DC airspace it is an extremely useful tool to stay oriented, so you don’t inadvertently stray into airspace you need to avoid. This is even more important at night time when you can get spatially disoriented. Considering the business of the airspace, I opted for a second touch and go. “Look long,” I could hear my instructor’s voice in my mind. The perception of height is so much different and difficult at night time!

Thankfully, things quietened down (at least momentarily), so I could fly and execute two stop and goes at leisure. Before long, there was traffic, all over that I could barely see. I could hear my traffic avoidance system go off several times with traffic alerts.

“Switch to 34L” commanded the controller.

So  I widened my base turn to switch to 34L and adapted to a shorter runway. Considering the shorter runway, I opted for another touch and go and switched to a left pattern to allow incoming jet to land on the longer 34R runway. Another loop and I decided to call it a day, finally landing on 34R, and heading back to the ramp, nervous I would veer off the runway.

Lights are important for any night flight: beacon, navigation, strobes, landing and taxi lights. Also recognizing runway end, and taxiway lights are important. Following the yellow taxi lines not only provide safe exits from the runways but also clearance from obstacles. Always carry two flashlights.

I’ve had more than 30-40 hours this year in the G-1000 C172 I was flying, having flown it to the Bahamas, that I was extremely comfortable with it, that it didn’t matter that I hadn’t done a night flight in a long time. This is also the best time of the year to do some night flying since you can get it done so much earlier, since the sun set’s before 5:00pm.

What better way to end another glorious day of flying than to attend a night flying seminar? Some key takeaways:

N. NOTAMS — always check before any flight especially night time
I. Illusions —refer to chapter 8 of the AIM
G. Glide Scope — is one available (now-a-days maybe LPV is another alternative)
H. How do I control the lighting? — varies for different airports. Check AFD!!!!
T. Terrain… how do I avoid it? Charts, charts and charts!

Safety Tips:
Carry 2 flashlights
Remember weather changes can occur quickly at night
Limit night flying to a familiar aircraft
Fly a higher than normal altitude for terrain
Use flight following
Know the moon’s phases
No intersecting departures!

5.2 night hours solo time and maybe 1.6 more. Enough to satisfy my night solo requirements for the commercial rating.

Feels good. Very good indeed!

Night Flying Tips (FAA)
Night Flying (AOPA)
Night Flying Safely (AvWeb)
20 Things you might not know about night flying (Plane & Pilot)

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