Tonight I was scheduled to fly my Night Cross Country Duo with my instructor JP. While I had done my first night flight and a number of landings a couple of weeks ago, this was going to be the first time I had to put all of the new cross country skills I had learned, to use during a night flight. The entire route had to cover 2.1 hours so JP and I decided on a route south of our area, leaving from Napa I would fly south to Modesto, put in a few night landings and then head north to Rio Vista where I would land a few more times before taking off and heading back to Napa. Simple enough right? Well...first I had to get the plane to Napa, and we were quickly running out of time.
I caught a few mistakes after writing up my flight plan which caused me to go back, find the errors and correct them. I could have just left with them the way they were and relied on the GPS, but I really wanted to know that my flight planning was accurate, which meant verifying all of the details and flying by the plan, not the GPS. By the time I was finished revising the flight plan, it was nearly 8 pm and the sun was quickly going down at Skypark, if I was going to make it to Napa, I needed to get off the ground soon. JP had decided that I should solo the plane over and he would make the half hour drive and meet me there, once at the Napa County airport, we would wait around for another hour or so until the sun was completely down as you can't get credit for flying a night flight unless it's, well, night, and then we would set out on the first leg of the flight to Modesto.
By the time I had run my pre-flight on the Cessna, performed the run up and taxied to the end of the runway it was after 8pm, this meant the tower at Napa had now closed and I would need to fly in without tower assistance. Making my call into Skypark traffic I took off on 26 and headed out on my crosswind departure out of the pattern. Unfortunately, just as I was leaving the pattern I noticed that the headset in the plane was not working properly and I wouldn't be able to use it to make my radio calls coming into Napa airspace. I had brought along my own headsets for the night flight, but because I was in a rush leaving Skypark, I had made the decision to use the headsets already in the cockpit and my headsets were still in their case lying in the backseat.
Decision time. Napa is not far from Sonoma, but just heading to Napa without headsets seemed like a dicey option. I would be in the pattern within minutes but would be unable to communicate with other pilots, and it was already starting to get dark. You can't land at Skypark once the sun goes down as there are no lights, so that option was quickly being eliminated as well. Since what I really needed was time, at this point I made the decision to climb. Figuring I could easily fly out towards the bay and up, I would climb to 2500 feet or so, make sure the air space around me was clear while there was still light, and figure out how to get my headsets out of the backseat and on my head. My plan worked, getting up an extra 1000 feet bought me the time I needed to get my headsets out and on, and having headsets that worked set me much more at ease for the remainder of my flight to Napa. I knew John would be waiting, and wondering where I went, but I also knew that flying safe was my first priority and he would understand my decision.
Relieved and now flying to Napa I tuned the radio into the local ATIS frequency to get an idea of the local weather, wind and runway conditions. From my limited experience, 9 times out of 10 coming into Napa you will land on 18 right, and that's certainly what I had in my head, but listening to the ATIS I heard something I had never heard before "runways 18 right and 36 left are closed due to disabled aircraft". What? Ok, now it's officially dark, the runway I thought I was landing on, and was used to landing on was closed, alright, new decision. Since I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do, I made a call and announced my intentions to fly left out of the pattern for a 360 degree climbing turn. Again, I chose to climb so I could buy myself some time to think about my choices. I don't get rattled easily, but this was starting to make me a little nervous, I had already had 2 situations that set me back and threw off my plan, leaving the airport later than planned and the headset malfunction, now I was faced with a situation where I couldn't land on the runway I had expected to land on.
Climbing back up to 2000 feet I considered my options and made a decision, while I couldn't see it from my current vantage point I would make my call into Napa traffic and land on 18 left, the much shorter parallel runway to 18 right...wrong. It was now dark, and on my initial approach I had turned the runway lights on by keying the mic, but as I made my downwind to base turn I noticed that there were no lights coming on on 18 left and it was much too dark to attempt a landing without lights. Here we go again, more decaisions. I only had one more choice, fly around to the other side of the airport to runway 24, so off I went, making a call that I would be leaving the pattern for 18 left and entering an extended base to final for runway 24. The approach to 24 is tricky, in the right pattern you fly out along the hills just east of the airport and then enter final over several blocks of buildings and I had only landed on 24 once before and that was during daylight hours.
Despite all of the alterations to my plan, I remained calm and managed to set myself up for a comfortable approach to 24. The runway lights were on and bright, and I had been in communication with the only other plane in the area, a Beachcraft I could see clearly on my approach, waiting at the hold short line for the same runway, 24 . I was now at least 1/2 hour behind schedule, so I knew my instructor would be wondering what had happened to me, but at this point I was only concentrating on getting the Cessna safely back on the ground, which is thankfully, exactly what I did. You can read about, and talk about aeronautical decision making again and again, but it's times like these that put you to the test. What do you do when something doesn't go as planned...or in this case, what do you do when nothing goes as planned?
I was relieved, not just because I got the plane safely on the ground but because I felt like I made the right decisions when faced with circumstances of the flight. It would be easy to get flustered, or get in a hurry because you're behind schedule and make rash decisions in the moment, but I had full tanks of fuel which meant I had time, so the decision to climb when I wasn't sure what I was going to do next was the right thing to do.
It was a short but challenging flight to be sure, but that's what happens when you fly, challenges arise, weather changes, runways close, technology fails, circumstances change, and you just have to be prepared to deal with them. When I arrived at the ramp JP was there waiting for me. We secured the plane and jumped in the car to run out and get something to eat before continuing the night flight. As we drove I apologized for being late and informed him about all of the things that had occurred during the flight over, the failed headsets, the closed runway, the decision to climb and get my bearings. We talked about each item and it's result, and he congratulated me on my choices. I felt good about the choices I made, but I was hopeful that the rest of our night flight would be free of more surprises.