Night flight in an A4B Skyhawk

I suited up, gave the A4B a pre-flight check, fired up the turbine, received Air Traffic Control clearance for my first leg, and departed Los Alamitos in a dense brown smog blanketing LA. I broke through the haze at 5,000 feet and was vectored to a northwesterly course, skirting the California coast. The approach to Alameda Naval Air Station runway 13 was from the northwest, over Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, clear of the crowded airspace around the Oakland and San Francisco airports to the south.

While the ground crew refueled the Skyhawk I grabbed a cup of coffee and a sandwich and checked Aerology for weather. Most of the US was clear (CAVU: ceiling and visibility unlimited). A powerful jet stream arcing gradually northeastward from San Francisco, on the 38th parallel, to Boston, on the 42nd parallel, would propel me across the continent with only one refueling stop. I planned a 1500-mile leg to the Naval Air Station at Olathe, Kansas (NUU), followed by a 1300-mile leg to my destination at NAS South Weymouth (NZW).

A4 Skyhawk
Not a bad airplane for crossing the country in one stop.

Climbing to altitude, the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Range ahead of me stood out, reddened by the sun on its way into the Pacific. Just over the mountains, white cumulus buildups darkened the terrain to the east. I leveled off at Flight Level 370, throttled back to 80% thrust for optimum fuel economy, and activated the autopilot. Thirty seven thousand feet is roughly the demarcation between the troposphere below and the stratosphere above. At these altitudes turbojet efficiency is aided by cold air temperatures, and the thin air creates less drag on the airframe.

On autopilot I was able to devote my attention to the landscape and my maps. By comparing position with the airspeed indicator I calculated that the jet stream was giving me a one hundred knots boost. As I crossed the Wassuk Range bracketing California and Nevada I tried to identify the twin peaks: Montgomery on the California side, and Boundary Peak in Nevada, but cruising 25,000 feet over these prominences I couldn’t distinguish one from another. Utah’s Sevier Desert appeared as only a flat spot between the Wassuks and the Colorado Rockies. The great peaks of the Colorado Rockies – Mt. Elbert, Mt. Lincoln, Gray’s – were indistinguishable from my vantage point four miles above them. To a traveler weaving through the Continental Divide they were majestic, but I occupied a different universe.

The foothills of the Rockies tapered down into the Great Plains of Kansas, now inky dark. A hundred and fifty miles from Olathe, my refueling stop, I was cleared to descend at my discretion, and throttled back into a long, coasting glide. Even without navigational TACAN, the glow over Topeka and Kansas City would have guided me to the field. When the tower didn’t turn on the runway lights until I was on final approach I thought somebody must have been asleep at the switch. After landing I got the answer. I was the only jet aircraft at the field. Olathe was a multi-engine base, where pilots had plenty of time to line up with the runway centerline on final; so being a little late with the runway lights didn’t make much of a difference as far as the crew manning the tower was concerned.

I filled out my flight log, got peanuts and candy bars from the vending machine, and watched the ground crew service the Skyhawk. When they finished refueling, instead of telling me the bird was ready to fly, the crew chief delivered bad news: the hydraulic fluid was low – too low to risk a flight covering the remaining half of the continent. Worse yet, they didn’t have jet hydraulic fluid at the base. The closest location for hydraulic with the required specifications was the Air Force Base in Kansas City, thirty miles away. After assessing my worried expression for a few moments, the chief smiled, noted it was a quiet night, and offered to dispatch two sailors in a jeep to get hydraulic fluid. Divine providence had intervened; it was destined that I fly through the night. I flaked out on the leather couch in Operations for forty winks.

“Lieutenant, lieutenant,” I heard in my dream, and awoke to a sailor shaking my shoulder.

“You’re ready to go,” he said.

NAS Olathe
Naval Air Station Olathe, the only stop on this quiet night.

It was 2am. I restoked on coffee, hit the head, strapped into the A4B, and while taxiing got clearance direct to my final destination, NAS South Weymouth, Mass.

I nursed the Skyhawk to its maximum altitude of 41,000 feet, then turned down the dimmers on the red instrument lights so the cockpit was as black as the void outside – an infinity of brilliant stars impossible to comprehend except when free of the troposphere. I was alone in the silent skies. Just to make sure I had actually been awakened from my forty winks and was not in a dream I radioed Air Route Traffic Control: “Chicago Center, this is Navy 4981, radio check, over.”

“Roger, Navy 4981, this is Chicago Center, I read you loud and clear, over.”

“Copy, Chicago Center, Navy 4981 out.”

Except for the lights of Springfield and Ft. Wayne, the land beneath was dark. Lake Erie, to the left as I neared Cleveland, was a dull black. Unlike the sky, alive with stars, the earth was dormant, sleeping. About a hundred miles east of my home field destination a thin ribbon of red defined the horizon ahead, as the sun, well beneath the curvature of the earth, began establishing its power over the planet. I landed at the sleepy naval air station, my odyssey complete, wrapped my treasure (two rolls of 35mm film) in my red bandana, placed it into my ditty bag, revved up my TR-4 and sped into Boston.

 

“A shoreless night, the pilot thought, leading to no anchorage (for every port was unattainable, it seemed), nor toward dawn. In an hour and twenty minutes the fuel would run out. Sooner or later he must blindly founder in the sea of darkness. Ah, if only he could have won through to daylight!

“What use to turn his eyes toward the east, home of the sun? Between them lay a gulf of night so deep that he could never clamber up again.”

Night Flight
– Antoine de Saint Exupéry

6 Comments

  • Brings back many fond memories of my USMCR days flying the re-engined A-4F (SuperFox) out of Alameda with VMA-133. There is truly nothing like solo flight at night in a jet at high altitudes. It always brought to mind the words of John Gillespie McGee in “High Flight” – “put out my hand and touched the face of God.” Semper Fi.

  • Loved this! The only Times U’ve flown high at night was in airliners. Once flew into LA at night arriving from the east. The blackness of the ocean to the west verses the mass of city lights was striking. My return flight east departed at night to the west I to the blackness then did a 180 to the east. One other flight was from Vancouver, BC into Chicago. That flight allowed me to see thunderstorms at night lighting their clouds below me. I could make out Omaha and other cities as we made our way eastward. I have flown in small planes at night in the Midwest, even once as a kid on July 4th where we could see fireworks from multiple communities at the same time from above. My private training flights at night remain some of the most memorable. It’s simply amazing how far you can see. Over Indiana from 3000 feet I could see Bloomington to Ft. Wayne and more in one of those flights with my brother CFI. Good memories all.

  • Fantastic story. Point of clarification – Boundary (13,146 ft) and Montgomery (13,442 ft) Peaks are in the White Mountains.

  • Great story. I remember trips to Olathe to see the Blues in their Cougars in the early 50s. BTW that AF base was Dicky Guber also known as Richards-Gebauer. Long days ago

    • In early childhood I grew up on the approach path north of Richards Gebauer. Flight surgeon bird Colonel next-door, TWA Connie Capt across the street and a Braniff Capt on the block behind us. Jet Jackson the Blue Angels, Sky King and Jungle Jim with his RC-3 on TV. Great childhood memories!

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