Thursday, April 1, 2021

Flashback: The Dark Night

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
28 Oct 2002 N9327U HAI (Three Rivers, MI) - C91 (Dowagiac, MI) - HAI 1.2 102.4
Final approach at Canandaigua in Warrior 481 on 30 August 2016 during a dark night currency flight

Mike Blackburn is a private pilot who blogs about his flying adventures in South Africa. He recently posted an article entitled "The Night Life - Nov 2020" in which he reflected on night flying and earning the separate rating that allowed him to operate in the sky after dark. As I read his article, I was strongly reminded of my early night flying experiences.

I absolutely love night flying, though I recognize that it comes with additional risks. (Cue the well-worn saw about how to handle an engine failure at night: turn on the landing light just before reaching the ground and, if you don't like what you see, turn it off again.) After sunset, nighttime air becomes smoothly quiescent and flying feels like swimming through the most dilute of fluids. Radio chatter subsides and daytime's tension and urgency are absent from the few voices drifting across the airwaves. Flying through darkened skies can be a wonderfully meditative experience if a suitable night is chosen.

Unlike other regions around the world (like Canada and South Africa), the United States does not have a separate night rating. Night privileges come as a package deal with the private pilot certificate. Because I trained in the north where winter days are quite short, my instructor Bill believed that his students should receive more than the minimum three hours of night training. Good on him, even if  cynics at the airport attributed this practice to padding his billable hours.

Despite having double the required dual instruction at night, I am not convinced that it was enough to prepare me for future excursions after sunset. I did most of my night training in January under clear skies and over snowy landscapes. A little moonlight goes a long way in those conditions and, though it was nighttime on the clock, there was almost always a lot of ambient light. As a result, I developed a very unrealistic impression of what night flying was actually like.

I was "enlightened" (oh, the irony) on my first solo night flight in the fall of 2002 after earning my private pilot certificate. I chose a dark night without realizing how that would affect the experience. Very high overcast, no moon, and too warm for there to be reflective snow on the ground. It was dark. I vividly remember rolling for takeoff and pitching skyward to launch from runway 5 at the Three Rivers - Dr. Haines Municipal Airport. As soon as my tiny little Cessna 150 broke ground, the runway lighting was suddenly blocked by the rest of the airframe. 

All outside visual references immediately vanished. I was in a black void – it could have been outer space. An expletive was uttered; I no longer remember which one. This took me completely by surprise because it was entirely outside of my experience. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to go on instruments before spatial disorientation set in and that saved me. In the end, I had an overall positive outcome and gained an excellent learning experience. It was one of many early examples of the private pilot certificate being a “license to learn”, as cliché as that sounds. The other trope that comes to mind is the one about filling the bucket of experience before exhausting the bucket of luck.

Eighteen years later, I purposely target dark nights for nighttime proficiency flights because I realize what a profound difference true darkness makes. For night VFR, it is the worst case scenario. But for pleasure flying at night, nothing beats a clear sky under a full moon with a nice reflective coating of snow on the ground.