Technique: I Wear My Sunglasses at Night

Flying a Waco under the hood to gain currency

June 1, 2008

The cold night wind swirls through the rear cockpit of the Waco YMF Super as I tuck my chin, turtle-like, into the warmth of my jacket’s upturned collar.

I’ve flown this gorgeous biplane around the Atlanta area countless times in the last five years in my weekend job as a scenic rides pilot. But all of those flights took place in daylight. On this winter evening, the familiar surroundings of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport (PDK) and its environs look strangely foreign as I taxi to Runway 20 Right for departure.

Instead of my usual goggles, a pair of Foggles is perched atop my forehead. My goal for this flight is to gain both instrument and night landing currency. I don’t plan on carrying passengers at night, but I’m preparing for an upcoming 1,000-mile ferry trip in a nearly identical Waco—and there’s a chance the flight could require flying in clouds, or darkness. Hopefully, not both at the same time.

FAR 61.57 spells out the currency requirements for U.S. pilots: Six instrument approaches in six months including holds, intercepts and tracking for IFR flying; three night, full-stop landings within 90 days is the prerequisite for carrying passengers after dark, and three full-stop landings (day or night) allows a pilot to carry passengers in tailwheel airplanes.

“Too bad you don’t have the keys to a Beech 18,” says David Tulis, my friend, photographer, and safety pilot, from the Waco front seat. “You could get multiengine, tailwheel, and night current on the same flight. Ever kill three birds with one stone?”

I cringe at the mental image.

“Let’s not kill any birds tonight,” I grouse. “And don’t throw any rocks, either.”

Atlanta bustles with business jet traffic during the day, but it’s relatively quiet tonight. As soon as the runup is complete, we’re cleared for takeoff. Full power brings a rumbling earthquake from the seven-cylinder, 275-horsepower Jacobs engine, and white runway lights pass by in a blur that seems faster than our 60-mile-an-hour liftoff speed or 80-mile-an-hour climb.

This airplane, a 1999 model owned by Steve Collins of Biplane Rides Over Atlanta, has a full IFR panel. A 12-volt electrical system powers the attitude indicator, directional gyro, and turn coordinator, and they’re bathed in the soft red glow from a panel light mounted on the right side of the leather-lined cockpit. A Garmin 430 provides the navigation in mesmerizing color.

At night, it’s eye popping.

I’ve often regarded the elaborate instrument panels in this and some other biplanes as technological overkill. Modern instruments seem out of place in flying anachronisms like Wacos, primary trainers originally outfitted with only the most Spartan gauges. But at night, under the Foggles, with my seat lowered so much I feel like I’ve fallen into a deep well, I’m glad all those microprocessors are coming along.

Although I’m a CFII and regularly give instrument dual from the right seat of mostly single-engine airplanes, maintaining my own instrument proficiency is surprisingly difficult. Now, as I lower the Foggles and put my trust in the gauges, Tulis, one of my instrument students, becomes my critic. And one of my favorite teaching tools, Foggles at night, is now my burden.

I’ve long regarded most view-limiting devices as barely satisfactory in the daytime because they allow numerous visual hints. Light and shadows fill peripheral vision. A momentary tilt of the head gives a full view of the airport on final approach. At night, however, darkness obliterates such informative glimpses. Deep in the Waco’s rear cockpit, I have no forward view beyond the instrument panel—and wings above and below block out most everything else.

Foggles, I also discover, do an admirable job of blocking the swirling night wind. I don’t miss my goggles at all. The temperature outside is in the high 40s, and the propeller-driven wind swirls around my head and shoulders. Despite the chill, a trickle of sweat runs down my neck.

A controller in the Atlanta tower clears us to turn eastbound and contact departure.

“See y’all after a while,” he says with a disarming twang. “Sure looks cold out there. I’m shivering just watchin’ ya.”

On scenic daytime flights, I seldom climb above 1,500 feet agl in the Waco. Passengers want a close-up view of the Atlanta skyline, Stone Mountain, and other landmarks, and I prefer staying low to avoid faster traffic in the busy airspace above.

Most local instrument approaches begin at slightly higher altitudes, however, and we’re soon rumbling along at more than 3,000 feet agl. Tulis notices a blue flame reflected in the mirror on the left side of our aircraft, and he quickly realizes it’s the exhaust plume that’s there all the time but invisible during daylight. He comments on the beauty of the shimmering city lights below—but the only color I’m watching is the magenta line on the Garmin. It shows the path to the VOR/GPS Runway 7 approach at Lawrenceville, Georgia (LZU), about 18 nautical miles east.

An air traffic controller vectors us in that direction but he’s got a question before he clears us to begin the approach.

“What kind of aircraft is a Waco?” he asks, pronouncing the name like the city in Texas. Then, noting our ground- speed, “Are you a helicopter?”

I correct his mispronunciation and tell him a Waco is an open-cockpit biplane designed in the 1930s—but this particular one is IFR equipped. I can almost see him shake his head in disbelief as he hands us off to the Lawrenceville tower.

Even though we’re traveling less than 100 miles an hour, I’m pressed to keep up with the normal demands of preparing for the approach. The approach plate on my kneeboard flutters in the breeze. Gloves make the Garmin tricky to tune, and after several false starts, I finally get the proper approach loaded and follow the DME arc to the final approach course. The line on the color screen is sure a lot more intuitive than the old “twist 10, turn 10” method I had learned as an instrument student. Light winds aloft simplify my tasks even more.

Once established on the final approach course and cleared for a low approach, I begin to mentally catch up with the slow-moving Waco. There is no landing gear to lower, cowl flaps to open, flaps to drop, boost pumps to turn on, or constant-speed propeller to adjust. I simply apply carburetor heat, and that reduces the engine power enough to produce the desired rate of descent. The Waco’s economy cruise speed is about 100 miles an hour, and its approach speed is about 90, so there’s not much reconfiguring or trimming to do from one phase to the next.

We reach the minimum descent altitude early enough to drone along in level flight for about one full minute before reaching the missed approach point. As it goes by, I get an unintentional but gratifying look at the brightly lit runway, ramp, and control tower passing underneath the biplane’s yellow wings. We’re right where we’re supposed to be.

I start a climb and make a slight turn toward GWNET, final approach fix for the ILS Runway 25, our next approach. Just as we settle into the climb, however, I see a couple unnerving flashes of white light. It’s as though we’ve suddenly flown into a silent, rainless lightning storm, or the strobes jumped from the wingtips to the cockpit.

I start to ask Tulis just what the heck is going on. Then I realize that he is taking photos, and the flashes are coming from his camera. I’d forgotten that snapping pictures was one of his chores on this flight.

“No extra charge for realistic distraction,” he chuckles.

The subsequent approaches go smoothly from my perspective, but not Tulis’.

“You were kind of jerky on the ILS,” he tells me after a somewhat discombobulated approach to Runway 20 Left at Peachtree. “Either that, or we kept hitting clear air turbulence and wingtip vortices the entire way.”

I didn’t simulate any instrument or electrical failures. I just wanted to get a close look at what it would be like to fly this particular airplane in the clouds if I ever had to. Flying at night, under the hood, is the closest thing I know to real IMC without actually being in it.

After 1.4 hours of nearly continuous approaches, it feels great to remove the Foggles, raise my seat, and do a quick trio of full-stop landings. Calm surface winds simplify the task, and I get to take in the expansive night view of the city lights. But my lips have become so cold that my radio calls are turning into indecipherable mumbles, and I’m anxious to park the Waco and find some hot chocolate.

Once my six approaches and three full-stop landings are logged, I’m technically legal to continue flying single-engine airplanes in IMC as well as carrying passengers in a tailwheel and at night. I’m confident that I can do that safely. But I also recognize that keeping up with a slow, stable airplane like the Waco can be a handful—and the difficulty factor must rise by orders of magnitude in actual IMC or partial panel conditions.

And I’ve changed my mind about something else. The old-fashioned Waco’s modern panel no longer seems so out of place. I’ve begun to appreciate how useful and comforting the IFR instrumentation can be—even during VFR conditions. Attitude instruments, a GPS, and glideslope receiver will certainly be welcome on my upcoming ferry flight.

Now, if I can just scrounge up a Beech 18 by the time my next currency flight is due in the summer.

E-mail the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor , AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.