Night flight

Forty hours of flying, 20 dual, 20 solo, and all necessary written materials: $2,000. That was the package, and the minimum necessary to take the written and flying tests and become a licensed pilot. Few made it in 40 hours. It was more often 60, 80, 100 or more, and many never made it. I took to flying like a fish to water, and in three months I had passed the written examination, done the 40 hours of flying, passed the flight test, and was a newly minted private pilot.

The next step, before one could use flying as a dependable means of transportation, as opposed to flying somewhere for lunch on a nice day for my $100 hamburger, was to learn instrument flying. It took another year to achieve that.

Runway lights at night
There is something special about flying at night.

There was one more mode of flying not accounted for when obtaining a pilot’s license, and that is flying at night. One might think that flying at night is not that different from flying during the day, but that is not the case. The main visual cue, being able to see the ground, has been removed. Assuming flight over land, in a populated area, one can see lights on the ground, and perhaps stars or the moon, and that is all.

For that reason in most countries flying at night is not permitted unless the pilot is instrument rated. The United States is an exception, allowing night flying with only visual cues. It is a privilege that should be exercised with caution because it is only too easy to blunder into an unseen cloud, or to realize once aloft that visibility is not what it seemed from the vantage of the ground. John F. Kennedy Jr., who was not instrument rated, was flying over water, on an overcast night, with no visual cues whatsoever, when his plane plunged into the water off of Martha’s Vineyard.

So my instructor and I waited until there was a clear, cloudless night for me to get checked out. The airport where I did my flying was very different than what most people picture when they think of an airport. My airport was a tranquil meadow with one paved runway and a parallel taxiway. There was a building that housed a lobby, an office, and a classroom. Beside that was a large hangar where mechanics worked on airplanes, and beside the hangar were a couple of fuel pumps. During the day there was a pleasant bustling feeling, with people always in the lobby, students in the classroom, mechanics busy working on airplanes, and planes taking off and landing on the single runway.

The airport at night could have been in an alternate universe. The stillness and the silence were absolute. There was not a single light on anywhere on the airport. One could just make out the shapes of the buildings, and the parked planes loomed up out of the shadows like a row of prehistoric birds. We untied the plane and did the preflight routine with flashlights providing the only illumination. Once I started the plane only the glow of the instrument panel pierced the darkness. The runway lights were turned on by tuning the radio to a specified frequency and keying the microphone five times. Then we were ready to go.

I turned on the landing light, which seemed to be overwhelmed by the darkness of the night, but provided just enough light to guide us to the end of the runway. We took off, climbed to three thousand feet, and leveled off.

This was in mid-October. It had been one of those perfect fall days, a day when you could see forever. The light had a clarity one only sees in the fall, and then only rarely. It was the kind of light that painters dream of. The night was still, without even the whisper of a breeze. The clarity of the day persisted. There was no moon, and numberless stars dotted the night sky.

The plane we flew that night had a cockpit like a fighter plane. There was a plexiglass canopy that allowed us to look up at the night sky. Once we leveled off something happened to me that, if I were a religious person, I would say was some kind of a revelation. The sound of the engine disappeared, the sensation of motion was gone, I lost my mooring with the earth, and I was suspended in an infinite black bubble, with the stars above, the lights on the ground below, and the lights of the instrument panel casting an otherworldly glow in the cockpit.

I cannot say how long that sensation lasted, but eventually some semblance of normality returned. I could hear the engine, I could feel that we were moving, and I could hear that the instructor, who was sounding somewhat exasperated, was trying to get my attention. The plan was to fly to a nearby airport, do several landings, and return home. Landing at night is different than during the day since the only points of reference are the runway lights. The runway itself is only seen at the last minute when it is illuminated by the landing light of the airplane.

As it turned out I got the hang of it fairly quickly. Then the instructor did something that indicated that maybe he too was affected by something unique that night. He told me to turn off the instrument lights. We are guided, when landing, by the instrument indications – power, speed, rate of descent. He told me that if I were one with the airplane I should be able to feel that all of those parameters were correct and land the plane without the guidance of the instruments. I did as he instructed and made three perfect landings. What we had done was inherently unsafe, and I never tried to do it again. We then returned home.

I have flown at night many times since then, but I have never recaptured the magic of that first night.

3 Comments

  • There is something about a clear night for sure. I would not call what the instructor did unsafe. I normally have a student land without lights at least once or twice Electrical systems do fail and the flashlight may not be ready (although it should) or fail.

  • I agree with Joe that what the instructor had you do that night was not unsafe. With clear sky above serving as a reverse horizon and the runway lights below you completed three perfect landings. That would not have been possible in poor or obscured visibility. Flying is a lot like riding a bike, and riding a bike at night is alot like night flying.

    Every time I fly at night, especially when it is clear and cold, I remember one time when I was about 9 or 10 that my dad asked for my help on our farm. It was harvest season and we had a big load going out the next morning, but the all apples were in bulk bins scattered about the orchard where they had been picked. Our tractor had a 3-point forklift on back and a 30 gallon drum on the front half filled with iron pellets as a counterweight. I sat on the front grill above the radiator with my feet in the bucket, and used a big flashlight to scan for bulk bins as my dad drove the tractor through the rows of trees. When we found one, I’d jump off and shine the light to help him guide the forks under the bin. Between dusk and about 10:30 pm we must have found and retrieved about 20 of them and brought them back to the packing house. It is one of the first times I remember working with my dad and being productive with him on the farm. The night was clear and cold and you could see all the stars and constellations in the sky. I always think of that memory when I fly at night.

    A few years later, after the farm was sold, my dad took me to an EAA fly-in at New London Va and I got my first fly in a small plane. I could see the contols operating the cables and moving the control surfaces as the pilot was flying around the pattern. I knew instantly how airplanes worked and came away from the flight thinking “I can do this!” … Thanks Dad!

    And thank you for posting your story about night flight. While reading it I really felt like I was there.

  • My instructor was giving me night flights for about a quarter of my training time, as I was usually the last student of the day, (had to travel fifty miles each way, to and from his airport, after my job.) Cross country flights were standard, and where we live is very rural, and mountainous. He wanted to make sure I was comfortable, and trained thoroughly, in that type of environment before I soloed. My cross country solo was over and through mountainous terrain, and ended with me arriving back at our northern airport, after dark. But, that flight made a difference, as, by the time I got back, put the plane to bed, and finished my paperwork with him, I was totally relaxed. Glorious, quiet, and calm. Thanks for a good story that brought back good memories.

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