In the dark – how ignorance can dampen your day

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

It was getting dark. I had never flown at night. On top of that, I had no night cockpit familiarization training. Incredibly, I did not know where any of the light switches were. Even radio lighting, which showed the frequencies, could not be illuminated since I did not know where that switch with the rheostat was. Does it surprise anyone that I was not carrying a flashlight as well? It was 1989 and there was no GPS. My CFI, now deceased, had approved this cross country flight with the understanding that it would be completed before sunset.

Runway lights at night
How do you land at night with no cockpit lights and no landing light?

How did this happen? Poor planning and the desire to get back to my home airport let me ignore progressively dimming light. After all, it did not become dark in a second. There were alternative airports, all of which I bypassed as I plowed on. It soon became apparent that night had fallen. I could see the headlights of cars on what I took to be IH 10. To the west, it ran toward San Antonio and I was aware of its glowing city lights. My destination was Lockhart, somewhere north of that interstate by some 20 miles. The darkness of the night created black holes in the ground as I flew away from the highway. During the day, we used to call that area the dead zone because it was just open ground with few landmarks. At night, signs of lighted habitation were few.

Using by guess and by gosh, I started to follow a steady stream of headlights that appeared to be heading north off IH 10. I figured they were driving to Lockhart. But after a short while, they headed west, or what I thought was west. I lost confidence in following them. If I continued to head into San Antonio’s airspace, I knew that it would require a green signal light from the tower to OK a landing. The mere thought of the newspaper headlines surrounding this scenario seemed to make it untenable. Yet, it had to be considered. Keeping the glow of San Antonio’s city lights to my left, I probably flew north. I transmitted on 122.8, my last frequency used, and asked for a response. No one answered.

The only good thing about my situation was that I had filled the tanks of the rented Piper Tomahawk before starting this leg of 100 miles. I had at least three hours of flying time to figure things out. I guess I was hoping things would get better. Then, I saw a flashing green and white beacon to my right. I had never seen or noticed one of these before, but I did remember that a ground school session mentioned that green and white beacons meant an airfield. I immediately banked to the right. Slowly the shape of runway lights took form. I appeared to be perpendicular to them.

I pulled the flap handle to the first detent (10 degrees) and banked left. I did not know my airspeed or altitude. I knew how critical these measurements were and my hand gripped the throttle tightly just in case a go-around was necessary. I didn’t have a lot of illumination from the runway lights, but I flew down the very center of that dark hole. The touchdown was smooth, but I used all of the runway. I had to apply the brakes harder than I ever had before to achieve a full stop. There didn’t seem to be much runway left. Taxiing back, I found the turnoff because a floodlight was placed above a trailer serving as the airport office.

It was Luling, about 15 miles due south of Lockhart.

No one stepped out of the office and it seemed deserted. Tentatively, I began to experiment with the switches and knobs until I turned on the cockpit and instrument panel lights. This made it easier to find the landing light switch. For the first time in the past 30 minutes or so, I felt relief. I think I sat in the cockpit for about ten minutes with the engine running before I made my next bad decision. I wanted to return that rental plane, get into my car, and drive home to Austin. The alternative was to leave the plane at Luling and call someone. Had I done proper planning, any contingency could have been handled. But no, I taxied out to the runway and took off to the north for Lockhart. Leaving all the lights on, I flew to the next green and white beacon. The second night landing was not as good as my first one in the dark. I had the benefit of the landing light and airspeed indicator, yet I bounced on the tarmac. No problem, I’m back safely.

Flashlight
A flashlight (or two) is cheap insurance.

A few days later I went over the events of that flight. It was sobering to think about what I did not know and just how fortunate I was. Coordinated flight close the ground is critical if one is to avoid the pitfalls of yank and bank. Airspeed, airport elevation, and nearby obstructions like poles and wires are always important in daylight, but doubly so at night. Remember those runway lights? Luling’s were 50 feet outboard of the actual runway. They were non-standard low intensity runway lights. Anything left or right of the non-existent centerline would place a plane in the turf — not life threatening perhaps, but a rough landing and maybe a prop strike were possible.

The length of that runway is 2,790 feet, not impossible in the daylight, but still a challenge for a student pilot not managing all the variables closely. Considering the above factors which could have easily led to real problems, luck played a fortuitous role in getting that Tomahawk down safely. So, why tempt fate again by taking off at night? My only excuse was my now misplaced confidence to finish the flight now that I had lights. Granted, I had made that short flight between Luling and Lockhart several times before this, but that was with daylight.

Today, whether it’s daylight or not, I always fly with two flashlights. I always do the complete POH checklist in any new equipment to familiarize myself with the controls and systems. I practice night landings by the book now as I know that I have little or no depth perception in the dark. I have nav aids that tell me exactly where I am and they are backed up by other nav aids. Any new airport I land at is described fully in my navaids so I know elevation, lighting, signage, and runway length. Night landings shouldn’t be a mystery with chance negotiating the outcome. Ignorance is not bliss.

4 Comments

  • Glad that you survived. I sure hope you bought a lottery ticket after your successful second landing, because you’re one lucky SOB.

    Lessons to be learned?

    1. Flight instructors can’t teach judgment, but pilots can learn it through experience.

    2. Flight instructors can avail themselves of ways to minimize the likelihood that their students will find themselves in a situation in which their lack of experience will form a dangerous tag team with their lack of judgment.

    I never authorize solo cross-country flight for a student who has not performed satisfactorily on my intro-to-night-flight lesson. Further, I never dispatch a student solo cross-country flight where the time-’til-empty-tanks will occur later than one hour before sunset. All of my students get night cross-country dual instruction before getting endorsed for their practical test, anyways – regardless of whether they “intend” never to fly cross-country at night after they get their certificate.

    3. Good fortune plays a large role in surviving the GA experience – but it’s the wrong nail to rely on. Risk-management is very much like task-loading – increases need to be incremental.

    The lessons that you shared with us are valuable – thank you. But they could have been acquired in less-risky ways.

  • I’m pretty sure this is the most dangerous “I can’t believe I just did that” story I’ve read yet.

    Aside from the dangers of landing at night with no lights, what about the very real possibility of getting disoriented?

    When my instructor took me on my first night training flight, he made me go to Venice airport which basically on the beach. He then made me take off and fly west over the water for some distance. This taught me how quickly a “VFR” night flight can turn into IMC. And I think VFR flight over land is even more dangerous in the sense that the lights can fool you into thinking your level when your not.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • My stupid move was with 40 hours as a student in the logbook on a flight from Del Rio TX to San Antonio TX in 1964. I was trailing my medical corpsman in another Super Cub from Del Rio when the dot in windscreen that I thought was his plane became the splattered bug it always was. Suddenly, it was dark and I am holding the stick between my legs with the red light on and the sectional unfolded in my lap. Probably tired and slightly hypoxic at 6000 feet, I could not do reciprocal numbers in my head and I no longer trusted the to-from on the VOR. I had no idea of the winds aloft or their direction and was probably running over the ground at 40 mph. I thought of landing on a dark highway just to get on the ground but soldiered on when I thought I would call up SAT tower just to hear a human voice. I casually reported that I was inbound full stop. Plodding along without seeing anything remotely like San Antonio panic and the fate of the B24 Lady Be Good (which crashed and disappeared for 17 years in the Libyan desert) started to set in. I had a vision of having passed SAT and having to crash somewhere in Texas scrub country and never be found. After talking to myself and realizing I had to fight the panic or I would die I continued to fly the plane.
    After an eternity of 45 minutes the tower controller at SAT called asking where I might be. My hemming and hawing reply elicited his interest and he asked if I had passed Kelly Field, a local landmark. Suddenly,while stammering for an answer, the city popped over the horizon and was ablaze with lights. But where was San Antonio International? I was fearful of landing at a military base like Randolph trying hard to recall which airfields had split green and white lights when in the middle of my muddle SAT told me he was actually going to turn off the tower lights and whether I could see them go on and off and on again. Wow! He did and I did. Now he asks me to turn 30 degrees left and right and says he has me. He gives me a heading and vertical descent of 500/minute but it did not matter that I had no VSI…I was landing at SAT no matter what. When I crossed the lights at they resembled a cross and for a moment, though religiously challenged, I thanked Jesus. Lots of lessons learned. All too obvious to enumerate. I have managed to survive almost 50 more of flying without incident.

  • Fairly commonplace and terrifying scenario in 1989. Luckily, this should never happen today when everyone on the planet has a smartphone, iPhone or Android, that has a built in flashlight. Even a destitute student pilot can install the free FltPlan Go app with geo-referenced sectional, airport info and approach plates. The best paid apps like ForeFlight and Garmin Pilot add terrain and obstacle displays that eliminate nearly all the risk in similar situations. Thank heaven!

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