Never Again Online: Perils of night VFR

April 1, 2006

It was early in March 2005, and I was about halfway through my training for the instrument rating. I had been flying practice instrument approaches under the hood with my flight instructor two or three times a week, and I had reached the point in my training when I needed a break from the intensity of it all.

I therefore decided on a night VFR flight out of McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, California. I would fly north up the southern California coastline, through the Los Angeles Class B VFR corridor, and land at Santa Monica Airport just a few miles farther north. A simple reversal of this route would get me back to Carlsbad by 8 p.m. local time, at the latest, if I launched by 5 p.m. The flight service specialist gave me the good word, no notable notams or temporary flight restrictions to report for the route and clear weather for the entire route of flight up until 10 p.m. local.

Southern California often experiences a layer of low coastal fog, also known as the marine layer and locally referred to as the "June gloom." This phenomenon is more prevalent in the spring, but can occur almost any time of year if conditions are right. It generally has a base ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 feet agl, is a few thousand feet thick, and usually is located a few miles off shore during the heat of the day. In the late afternoon or evening it can move ashore to dissipate the following morning as the temperature rises.

I headed north up the coastline in near-perfect visibility. Even though I hadn't flown night VFR for quite a while I felt pretty comfortable, all the more so now that I had logged many hours of dual instrument time. "Nothing to it," I thought. Besides I had my trusty GPS strapped to the yoke to guide me around the thicket of Class B, C, and D airspace on this particular route.

After landing at Santa Monica I reviewed the return flight on the Los Angeles Terminal Area Chart. It occurred to me that, for the sake of variety, I might fly just offshore and underneath the John Wayne Class C airspace floor, which is located at 1,500 ft msl, instead of climbing above it as I had done outbound. It seemed to me that I could keep near enough to the shoreline to have a good shot at a dry landing if the engine quit, and I would monitor SoCal Approach all the time and contact them immediately should any unpleasantness arise. To be sure, it would be very dark out there over the water at low altitude with almost no moon, but as I headed south away from the Los Angeles area the air remained crystal clear — indeed the whole magnificent Los Angeles basin lay glimmering on my left flank.

A few minutes south of Los Angeles, Zamperini Field in Torrance revealed itself invitingly, and I decided to make an unscheduled landing, partly for the night landing practice and partly to add another airfield to my list.

After departing Torrance, I crossed the shoreline southeast bound and descended to 1,000 feet above the waves as planned to keep well below the floor of the Class C airspace around John Wayne Airport-Orange County. I stayed a couple of miles offshore and kept an eye on the GPS for situational awareness. It was a gorgeous night.

Just as I was admiring a large well-lit ship at anchor directly below me — while spotting the lights of John Wayne airport off the left wing — I suddenly found myself whizzing in and out of thick clouds. Within a few seconds I was in solid clag, flying entirely without benefit of outside visual reference and in a very dark world indeed. How could this have happened to me? Almost immediately the words "First, fly the airplane!" leapt to my mind. My eyes immediately went to the instrument gauges — everything was holding steady, to my surprise and relief. A glance at the trusty GPS confirmed that I was underneath the 1,500-foot floor of the Class C airspace and about halfway through the length of it. I decided not to declare an emergency — not yet, anyway. I wanted to focus entirely on aviating and navigating and considered a course reversal into the visual conditions that I had come from. A left turn toward shore would have brought me inside the Class C airspace almost immediately, while a right turn would have taken me considerably farther out over the ocean — not a pleasant thought in a single-engine airplane at 1,000 feet agl in solid clouds. I decided to continue on my heading for another three minutes or so, when I would be out from under the Class C airspace floor and able to initiate a climb to VFR on top. After five minutes I could see the stars again.

The ATIS at CRQ reported instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). The tower confirmed the situation and asked if I wished to be cleared for an instrument approach. It was tempting, but as a non-rated instrument pilot I had to decline the offer. I asked for the weather at Ramona Airport and was told that it was still VFR, so I announced my intention to divert there.

After I arrived at Ramona, I filled up the fuel tanks. The only motel with a room available was at the far end of town and unwilling to provide transportation. Quite tired and fed up, I took off for Gillespie Field, about 20 minutes to the south. I was greeted on the ramp by the all-night security guard who lent me his sleeping bag and kept me company for a while. I managed a bit of fitful sleep on the hard terminal floor.

When I called FSS for the day's briefing and to discuss the events of the previous evening, the briefer patiently and politely explained that occasionally the timing and extent of coastal cloud movement departs radically from the usual pattern and that they had provided the best forecast that they could at that time. The June gloom did not dissipate until late morning, and I finally returned to CRQ early in the afternoon — about 16 hours past my original ETA.

What, then, of the lessons learned?

Weather predictions can change, especially when short-term phenomena such as the on-shore movement of coastal clouds are involved. It is the responsibility of the pilot in command to be prepared. I should have contacted flight service en route for an updated weather briefing.

Clouds are very difficult if not impossible to discern at night, especially over water and with little or no moonlight. Even if someone had told me there was a thick cloud layer ahead at my altitude as I descended beneath the Class C airspace floor over the Pacific, I would still not have seen it until actually immersed in it — a very sobering thought.

Before changing any aspect of your flight plan en route, try to think through all of the possible consequences. In this case I might not have encountered IMC if I had not rather impulsively opted to land at Torrance on the return leg, thereby extending my flight time while the marine layer was heading toward the shoreline.

Finally, consider an instrument rating if you intend to fly at night. It will help you deal with unexpected or deteriorating weather conditions that are difficult to recognize at night, especially on a dark and moonless night.


Charles Harmon, Ph.D., AOPA 4554140, is a pharmaceutical industry consultant in San Diego. He recently obtained his instrument rating and has accumulated 248 hours of flight time during four years of flying.


You can find additional information about flying at night at the following links:


Look for the latest installment of Never Again in the May issue of AOPA Pilot. The story relates a pilot's harrowing experience shortly after takeoff as a result of fuel contamination.


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Posted Wednesday, April 19, 2006 9:28:55 AM