New Pilot

Night Moves

May 1, 1997

Advice for doing it in the dark

Snugged in the right seat of a Beech King Air at 17,000 feet, with a dark Atlantic Ocean on my right and Comet Hale-Bopp setting on my left, night flying seemed thrilling beyond compare. Ten thousand feet below, the top of a flat overcast glowed in the light of sleepy Yankee cities. We clipped homeward, groundspeed 270 knots. Forget the beer commercials. It doesn't get any better than this.

I was a visitor in this cockpit, and I know that the usual pilot's version of night flight is rarely quite like this. If you reset the scene with a smaller, less capable airplane piloted by a much less experienced flier than my 21,000-hour captain of tonight, you have the usual formula for general aviation night fright. The latter is a formula I have experienced many times, both as an instructor and as a traveler. It is a formula that triggers vigorous debates about flight training. Have new pilots who launch into the night been provided adequate exposure to this frequently serene but occasionally treacherous environment? The doubt has not escaped the Federal Aviation Administration; beginning August 4, all applicants for a private pilot certificate must have completed a night cross-country flight of 100 nm total distance.

Is this a good idea? Ask a roomful of pilots; come back an hour later and the discussion will still be raging. Under training standards used to date, only two requirements beyond knowledge must be met: 3 hours of night flying, and 10 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. There's usually nothing about it on the checkride. Instructors fashion the program, and variety abounds. Weather permitting, I like to make the first night outing a short cross-country, perhaps with three legs. Visual and radio navigation get us where we are going, and we make a few of the landings at each port of call. On the second, and final, night flight, we step up the pace a little bit, doing airwork and emergency procedures. Each flight is carefully considered from the point of view of weather, the need to carry increased fuel reserves, and terrain. The student is taught to carefully inspect the airplane, including all lights; to have more than one working flashlight aboard; and to prepare for an almost immediate transition to instrument-reference flying if taking off on a moonless night away from any urban lights.

But these are only the basics. The reality of night flying makes itself known only through exposure. Some pilots say that this argues for enhanced training and time requirements. Others say that it should discourage visual flight in single-engine airplanes after dark by non-instrument-rated pilots, and by pilots in single-engine aircraft generally.

Training time, of course, is what you make it; if you spent all your night flight training orbiting in a traffic pattern, ask for your money back. It is when you are flying over less-than-familiar terrain, a few hours deep in your weather briefing, with less than a full tank of fuel, that the ambiguities of night flight emerge. Temperature-dew point spreads, for one. Monitor them religiously to ward off a surprise attack by ground fog. The slightest change in observed weather should trigger alarms and bring alternative plans of action into the foreground. Number one on the list should be the retreat to known good weather and friendly runways. Keep in mind that those observations of changes in the weather will be harder to make.

Often the air is smoother at night because of the lack of thermal activity, but day or night, fronts are fronts. Stable air and strong wind can equal low-level wind shear. Calm air invites wake turbulence to hang around. Animals wander out onto quiet runways and seemingly love to stand astride the centerline, projecting a dark profile toward the approach course. Deer-induced go-arounds are common to my sessions of night instruction. Attitude instrument flying fatigues many a novice; a go-around into blackness may be asking too much.

Navigation is simplified at night. Cities and some towns produce the odd-shaped yellow glow printed in living color on sectional charts. One shock for new night fliers is the feeble twinkle thrown out by many airport beacons that seemed strong as strobes on the ground. Picking one out of the light clutter isn't always easy. At most towered fields the controllers will turn up runway lights or the "rabbit" on request.

Optical illusions that you read about in training texts can indeed impose a threat to your orientation. Stars blending with lights on the horizon are bad, but an uneven ridge line for a horizon might be worse. Worse still is light-eating haze. Crosswind angles seem exaggerated during landings because of the lack of peripheral references, and they can be easily misjudged, a problem solved by practice. Flaring high and dropping it in is a common night offense. It is a good training exercise to land a few times without your landing light — just in case — but when the trainee is doing it voluntarily, it is probably because use of a pre-landing-procedures checklist is being neglected. On that score, if you fly a complex aircraft, remember that the tower cannot see whether your landing gear is down at night.

In the fun department, night flight has qualities all its own. Air traffic controllers are soothed into a tranquil state and even seem eager for someone to talk to. I remember a night several years ago when my student and I were given carte blanche to fly whatever instrument approaches to whatever runway we desired, until other traffic showed up. Even the working pros loosen up at night. An airliner checked in and advised that he had Information Sierra. "Information Tango is now current, but there are no significant changes," the controller responded. "All right, then we have Tango," joked the pilot.

One of my fondest recollections is of a night arrival in Frederick, Maryland, after a long winter day's battle with snow squalls, headwinds, and turbulence. The atmosphere had calmed as Allentown, Reading, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, slid by outside. The smooth air, steady needles, and thrumming engine were as relaxing as being home in an armchair. No King Air today — this was a Cessna 172, and with another pilot beside me in the front row, both bundled in big coats, we were in anything but spacious surroundings. But I could have stayed like that indefinitely. It made all the difficult times seem worthwhile.

Practice Area: Inimitable Airplanes


March 23, 1997, was the fifty-second anniversary of my first flight lesson and, looking back, there are certain airplanes that stick in my mind.

Dart G — The original of this airplane had a 90-horsepower, five-cylinder Lambert R-266 engine and was built before World War II. Some Darts had Ken-Royce 90-hp engines, and a few had 90-hp Warners. The ones that I flew (NC 31689 and NC 31690) were built after the war and had six-cylinder 100-hp Continental engines. The designation was Dart GC.

The Dart was an ellipical low-wing, side-by-side, fixed-gear airplane that was very short coupled. The snap rolls were outstanding. As a brand-new instructor in 1949, I was assigned to teach both primary and aerobatics in a Dart. The airplane was a leaseback, and the owner had insisted that the tailwheel coil springs be removed. This made for interesting takeoff and landing practice, as the student had small heel brakes and the instructor (me) in the right seat had no brakes at all. But 19-year-old new instructors don't have the worries of more experienced instructors.

It was the owner's pride, and it was immaculate. The airplane was a crisp red and black and was handbuilt in every way. Even the seat cushions were custom made, and there hangs a tale.

One afternoon between dual flights, I took the Dart up for solo aerobatics and thought that some slow rolls might be good — particularly with the canopy open, which would give me an old-time barnstorm effect.

I got the proper airspeed, pulled the nose up, and gave left stick and left rudder, then right rudder as the bank became vertical. I was a little overenthusiastic on the forward pressure as the airplane became inverted, and something flashed by my head.

It was the custom-made cushion for the right seat. I had forgotten to belt it down. I followed it down, circling as it floated down, rotating gently. It landed in a small pasture, too short for the Dart. I couldn't stay out in the practice area much longer, and when I got back, the owner — who flew the airplane almost every afternoon — would ask leading questions about the whereabouts of the custom-made cushion.

I landed and taxied to a spot well away from the office and ran to a Champ, hollering for a crank now. I took another pilot with me.

We landed in the pasture, retrieved the custom-made cushion, and soon were back at the airport. The owner later asked how bits of grass clippings got on the cushion, and I offered that perhaps birds had thought about building a nest while the Dart was sitting out on the line.

Always check for loose objects before flying upside down with an open canopy.

Piper PA-29 Papoose — N2900M was the only Papoose that flew in 1963, but, according to different sources, there was one — and perhaps two others — built for back-up parts. The Papoose was an early Piper venture into building a composite airplane. The fuselage of the two-place side-by-side trainer, as I recall, was of honeycomb construction; and before it was painted, the shadow-form of the pilot could be seen if the sun was at a particular angle. Each wing consisted of top and bottom halves from molds, joined in much the same way as plastic model airplanes are today. The horizontal tail was a modified Cherokee stabilator. The airplane was equipped with full span "flaperons" acting as ailerons and flaps as needed. I flew N2900M in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, at the Piper factory and got a look at operations in different temperature environments. It had a 108-hp Lycoming, the same as in the Colt.

I was pleased with its flight characteristics and did some loops, aileron rolls, snap rolls, and spins. I thought that it would make a snappy but honest trainer, but it was ahead of its time; one reason for dropping it, I heard, was a concern for the life expectancy of the plastic composites being made at that time. The state-of-the-art composites today would probably make it a great success, but it could be as expensive as some of the two-place trainers marketed today.

PA-30 Twin Comanche "290" — One project when I worked at Piper Aircraft in 1964 was to take out the Comanche's O-320s (160 hp) and replace them with 290-hp engines. I flew it and thought of the F8F-1 Bearcat, but after test flights were made, the flight test people (including me) were concerned about flutter with the change in (1) power and (2) mass of the engines on the wings. (One question was, what would minimum controllable single-engine airspeed be with bigger engines?) I had moved to Tennessee when I was told that the project had been dropped because of flutter problems. At light airplane weight, I saw a rate of climb close to 3,000 fpm.

Piper PA-24-400 Comanche — This was a fun airplane to fly; the two final test airplanes were N8400P and N8401P. It was quite a machine, and the reason for the bigger engine was that Howard (Pug) Piper wanted an airplane that could fly at high altitudes without turbocharging. It flew like a fighter but had a high fuel consumption and, during the flight test period, was difficult to start when hot.

I was flying a -400 one clear day over Lock Haven and saw a regular Comanche flying along the airway. I came from behind at full power and passed the airplane, staying well to one side; flew ahead; then climbed, circled, and flew past a couple of times — still safe, but the big side numbers were readable. (The fuel gauge needle was perceptibly moving toward "E.") I was guarding unicom, and the other pilot, not aware of our new Comanche, came up on that frequency and said, "Eighty-four-hundred Papa, what kind of Comanche are you flying?"

I mumbled something about getting it "on the step" (a phenomenon I've never encountered) and landed, receiving a deserved reprimand for exposing a yet-to-be announced airplane. The airport unicom had heard the exchange.

New Pilot's Journal: It's All Up to You


I had flown many times, but only as the proverbial "copilot." My husband has been a private pilot for years, and I was always asked to read off the checklists, hold the chart, look for traffic, and grab stuff out of the back seat. My husband cleverly described how he was employing good "cockpit resource management." Eventually I became very good at pilotage, spotting traffic, and even deciphering unclear radio communications. I was content with this special designation of copilot until my husband and I attended AOPA Expo '94 in Palm Springs, California. AOPA's Project Pilot program was the excuse that I was looking for to start learning to fly. Caught up in the overall excitement and enthusiasm of the convention, I decided that I wanted to be a pilot.

What had stopped me from doing this before? With my husband as a pilot, it seemed like the right thing to do, yet I had never really seriously considered learning to fly. I always felt uncomfortable — OK, I will admit it, I was afraid of those moments in flying during which you think that the airplane will crash.

Could I master flying even though I was afraid that the engine could lose power and the airplane would fall out of the sky or that I might get overwhelmed by all of the complicated instruments and crumble under the pressure? Only I could make that decision.

I convinced myself that an introductory flight would help me to decide whether I could fly despite my fears. For the first time, I sat in the left seat of an airplane, the pilot's seat. Even though the flight was brief, it was long enough for me to realize that I could do this and that it was fun, too. Those things that I was afraid of, although they did not go away, seemed less formidable, and I now felt empowered to face them.

My husband agreed to be my Project Pilot mentor throughout the process. I held him to it by making him quiz me, using the chapter tests in the private pilot manual. He explained, in great detail, answers to questions that I did not want to ask my instructor. As I learned, both by experience and through ground school lessons, my fears began to subside. Ultimately, knowledge and understanding led to greater confidence.

After only 3 hours of flying you begin the bold process of learning that your plane does not fall to the ground when the engine power is pulled off. To my amazement and concern, stalls are taught very early on in the training process. The training of how to recover from the potentially deadly stall is meant to give you the confidence that you can control the airplane. In fact, you learn how to avoid the situation altogether by becoming aware of how stalls can occur. I can honestly say that I never enjoyed doing stalls, although after successfully recovering from one, I felt good about my ability to remain calm and perform the proper recovery procedure. When my instructor said, "that was a perfect stall," it seemed funny to take it as a compliment. I was proficient at these after about 3 hours of practice, and I wanted to move on to the next maneuver.

As we got into the landing procedure, the understanding of elevator and throttle control became key through demonstration of minimum controllable airspeed and constant-airspeed climbs and descents. My instructor and I had many stern discussions about how to use the elevator to control airspeed and the throttle to control altitude or descent in order to keep the airplane on the glide path. It took many landings to improve my response time and to react to being too low or too high. I often blew the landing because I had too much power and not enough airspeed.

I wanted my instructor to explain how to land as if it were an algebraic equation. Do this, then do this, this, and that, and you will make a picture-perfect landing. When I realized that there was no way that he could teach me to land as if we were solving for x, I knew that I had to learn through repetition and hands-on experience.

I was rapidly approaching the day when I would make my first solo flight. I had just over 25 hours of dual and my instructor felt that I was ready. Of course, I had certain fears. With an instructor always in the airplane, you feel that if for some reason you make a mistake or forget something, the instructor will "save" you. But flying solo means that you have to be in control, confident, and aware at all times.

On my first two attempted solo landings, I was high on approach. The picture did not match what I was used to, so I went around. On my third attempt, everything felt right and I made my first solo landing! After I made the required three full-stop landings, I met up with my instructor, and he shook my hand and extended his congratulations. I felt that I had accomplished something special.

By meeting this challenge, I was now ready for more. I felt in control, confident, and knowledgeable. I could do it. I had to experience the feeling of control that the knowledge gave me, then I could overcome my fears and actually have fun flying. It had been up to me!

This is the first in a series of three articles on the author's experiences in obtaining her private pilot certificate.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.