Why is it so dark? An important lesson learned

I didn’t realize I had lived such a sheltered life, but obviously in some ways, I had.

It was my longest cross country flight up to that time, and still holds that record. It was from Lubbock, Texas, to Bowling Green, Kentucky. Our church was looking for a new college minister and there was a college ministers’ seminar going on in Bowling Green. The selection committee felt it might be worth it to send a couple of us to attend it to see if we might be able to snoop out any viable candidates for the job. This was one of those instances where with two of us going, I could get us there cheaper in the Bellanca than an airline fare for two, so I volunteered to take the trip.

I planned meticulously, and my planning seemed logical. One consideration was that the gentleman who would accompany me was a college professor, and he couldn’t leave until 3:00 pm. This was summertime though, and in crunching the numbers, I figured we would be able to get there before dark—important since I wasn’t night current. It was a five hour flight. I planned a fuel stop in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which I allowed 30 minutes for. The sun didn’t go down until 9:00, so that would put us safely in Bowling Green with 30 minutes of daylight to spare. Or so it seemed.

Sunset
Why is it getting dark so early?

The first part of the trip was uneventful, except for initially identifying the wrong airport at Fayetteville, but we did find the right one thanks to some guidance from the tower. I was right on with my 30 minute estimate for the stop, and soon we were on our way to Bowling Green. About an hour into that leg though, I noticed something disconcerting. It was getting dark, and it was only 7:30. All my questions about why this was happening didn’t stop it from happening, and by 8:00 PM, it was totally dark.

It had never dawned on me that I lived on the western side of the central time zone, and that on the eastern side of that time zone, things were quite a bit different. About an hour different in fact. I had looked at maps of the time zones and realized they covered about a quarter of the nation, but somehow I never made the connection that things didn’t happen instantaneously when you crossed the line.

I didn’t have any really good options. Reality was that it was dark. At least there was a moon, so it wasn’t pitch black, but it was black enough. I had flown at night, but not much. I had gotten the requisite hours required to get my license with no night restrictions. I might have checked out at night with an instructor once in the intervening years, but night flying was not something I did regularly or something I was comfortable with. But here I was. In the dark. And the only thing certain was that the plane was going to touch the ground in the dark somewhere. Just how was still the question.

At least there was no weather to contend with, and thanks to Loran at the time, I could find the airport. The pucker factor was significant as I neared the runway, but thankfully, it was a respectable if not good landing. I’m assuming the statute of limitations has run out since this was over 20 years ago, and the airplane wasn’t bent, so I’m not expecting a call from the FAA for confessing. In fact, I was able to fly the airplane back to Lubbock a couple of days later, in the daylight.

I felt a little stupid after I got on the ground, and at the same time a little exhilarated. I shouldn’t have gotten myself into the situation to begin with, but I didn’t panic, and my passenger seemed to not know anything unusual was going on. At least he wasn’t screaming and clutching the door.

We’ve all learned lessons the hard way, and this one was fortunately reasonably benign. No one hurt, and no harm done. Just a feeling of embarrassment that I was dumb enough to get myself in the situation, but pleased that I was smart, calm, and lucky enough to get myself out of it.

Editor’s Note: This article is from 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.

2 Comments

  • Very nice story! Yes, aviation has this magic of making the Earth movements and size palpable. Nowadays I fly in the other side of the world, at the mach levels, and often we are asked by passengers about what time is the sunset or sunrise. Imagine doing that math crossing several time zones, at FL400 and often flying as fast as the ground moves below you. After a couple years of practice, I’m able to guess within a fair few minutes margin even hours before without using any app, just the Jeppesen tables. It helps to speed up long haul flights! And about the Loran… wow!!! I always wonder how was flying using that. The father of the RNAV… I was fortunate enough to fly a lot at night during my IFR and timesharing. Of the 256h I had at my CPL checkride, 89h were at night, and even nowadays, the night time counts for a third of my totals. But at the beginning I did not like it too, and up to today I rather land during day.

  • Jay:
    What a great reminder about time zones! Thanks.

    FWIW, while I log night flights I’ve become painfully aware after two night time mechanical issues (one total engine failure after a bearing seized, one partial power loss after a spark plug disintegrated) that SE flight has increased risks at night, in IMC, or elsewhere/elsewhen landing might be difficult. “Two is ONE, and one is NONE” is absolutely true with regard to power plants on SE aircraft. I still fly at night or in reduced visibility … but following a very serious review of risks and ‘outs’.

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