Your connection with the sky

August 12th, 2012: Flying the Night Shift


Sonoma to Napa to Modesto to Rio Vista to Napa

After a somewhat tenuous start to the evening (read the previous post, Jack be Nimble), we finally got in the air for the planned night flight.

I had completed my flight plan around 8pm, made the short solo flight over to Napa where the trip would officially start but in order for it to be officially endorsed as a night flight in the log book, we had to wait until about 10pm to make our departure. I needed just over 2.1 hours and at least 3 takeoffs and landings on this flight to satisfy the last of my night flying requirements so the plan called for a first leg to Modesto, then up and over to Rio Vista, and then back to Napa.

I took off from Napa County Airport just about 10pm with a moonless, calm and clear sky. Even though I had been flying some 8 out of the last 10 days, it had been almost a month since my first night flight, and I was really looking forward to tonight's flight. Flying over the north end of the east bay at night was beautiful for sure and flying at night in general just seems so much calmer than the day. The air was cool and calm and the visibility excellent even in the black of the night sky. As we flew towards our first destination, Modesto, JP and I talked about the differences between day and night flying, how your eyes tend to focus more inside the cockpit then out, about the importance of scanning the sky, pointing out illusions like clouds that look like mountains, or mountains that look like clouds, or the fact that some were so dark you couldn't see them at all which totally reinforces the notion of having a solid flight plan and working knowledge of your instruments.

JP offered techniques for picking out landmarks and checkpoints at night, using the edges or boundaries of populated areas, the shapes of which are much more evident when outlined with the lights at night. Along this route we had a number of things to watch out for that would help us determine if we were on course, fields of giant windmills, exceedingly tall radio towers, bridges of water ways. It took me a long time to get used to looking at things from the air during the daylight hours and associating the view with what I knew it to look like from the ground, even in familiar places like my home town, and at night, things really look different.

Keeping up with the flight plan we marked each checkpoint and the corresponding time and mileage. Because there were nearly invisible mountains on both sides of us along our chosen corridor, it was extremely important that we stay on course so I was diligent about making sure I recognized and verified each waypoint. 10 miles out I made our call into Modesto traffic, and when I had the airport in sight, turned the runway lights on by keying the mic and made my first landing, taxied around, took off into the pattern and repeated the process 2 more times. I have to say, I don't know what it is, but I love landing a plane a night. I could have done a few more, but we had a schedule to keep and it was time to head out on the second leg of the flight, up to the small town of Rio Vista.

On our flight up to Rio Vista, JP and I talked more about illusions at night, like the tall vertical radio towers, even with their flashing red lights atop, how they could at times appear to be horizontal rather than vertical, and when approaching Rio Vista and seeing the vast fields of giant windmills, also lit with red flashing lights atop, how it was difficult to calculate their relative height in the dark sky. I have to admit, unlike Modesto where the airport is right in the middle of town with city lights all around, I was a little uneasy flying into the pattern at Rio Vista. The sky was incredibly dark, and even though I had looked over the map prior to our departure and knew there shouldn't be anything in our path, it was all but impossible to make out the difference between flat and elevated ground, or the stands of trees along the waterway near by. With JP reassuring me that there was nothing to be worried about, I turned on the runway lights and swung around for my first pass through the pattern.

The runway at Rio Vista, while more exposed, is considerably shorter and narrower than either Napa County of Modesto airports, the only other 2 places I had landed at night. There was also a bit of unexpected crosswind at the surface that caught me a bit off guard on my initial landing...or, touch and go as it was. Circling around I asked JP if it was ok to do couple more...the runway was a challenge, and I could use the crosswind practice. Coming around for my second landing I was more confident on my approach and everything was quite a bit more comfortable as I touched down smoothly on the runway surface, although just as I l was about 50 feet off the runway surface, I saw something briefly, but a bit disturbing. In the black of the night sky, and lit only momentarily by the landing light on the front of the Cessna I saw a large bird connect with the propeller and subsequently the underside of the cowling of the plane. JP couldn't see it from the right side, but we had clearly made impact. Since I was in the middle of my takeoff, and there was nothing but black in front of us on the surface, and no place to safely land without returning to the airport, I made the decision to continue to gain speed and climb, after all, I'd at least need to come close to pattern altitude in order to get back around for another landing. There were no immediate signs that the impact was affecting the performance of the plane, and while I was fairly sure the fowl had connected with the prop, JP was more confident that it had only struck the cowling, and between us, we made the decision to continue our ascent, carefully monitoring the behavior of the aircraft. With no evidence that the fowl had interfered with the prop, or entered the air intakes and no change in performance, JP and I made the decision to continue on rather than turn back and land again at Rio Vista.

I knew there was some risk to continue, but I also knew it was a risk to try to return and land again at Rio Vista. In retrospect, if this ever happens again, I will probably circle the plane around and land to survey any possible damage as, while the plane was flying normally, the thought of the possibilities had me concerned most of the way back to Napa. Making an emergency landing during the daylight hours was one thing, attempting it over populated areas at night was something altogether different, and it's simply not worth the risk.

The Cessna performed fine for the rest of our flight and we comfortably made it back to our final destination at Napa County Airport, where flying through the pattern to 24, I landed the plane smoothly and taxied back to the ramp where JP and I carefully inspected the plane. In the dark of the night we couldn't see much, except for some blood and feathers on the cowling, but by now it was 12:30 am and we would have a chance to inspect it more carefully in the light of day tomorrow.

All in all it was incredible flight, but as with all of them, there were a number of challenges throughout the entire evening, from the headset and radio problems on the way to Napa earlier, to the unexpected runway closures, to the bird strike, it was a night filled with aeronautical decision making to be sure, all of which held some valuable lessons that will be applied to future flights.

Thrilled by the experience, but somewhat exhausted, I was happy to be back on the ground with another opportunity to learn from the experience and do it again tomorrow.


PS: Upon inspecting the Cessna the next morning, it was evident that the fowl had indeed struck the propeller. While there was no sign of damage to the propeller or evidence that any of the remains entered the cowling or engine compartment, there were remnants of it caught in the landing gear. While as it turns out, it wasn't enough to affect the performance or safety of the plane...this time, it was a definite eye opener and something I will always keep in mind from now on. The bottom line is, as the pilot, you are in command of the airplane and if you have any reservations about the plane being in the air, my advice would be to put it back on the ground until you have them resolved.

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