Never Again: Night over the Everglades

November 1, 2008

I’m the leader of a band called the “Caribbean Chillers,” and we had a performance scheduled in Key West, Florida.

Instead of driving 14 hours round-trip, I decided to rent a Cessna 172SP in Leesburg, Florida, and fly with a couple other band members to Marathon, Florida. The down-and-back trip would take just four hours, and we could fly home after the gig and sleep in our own beds.

The three of us arrived at Leesburg in plenty of time to confirm the weather was downright gorgeous, complete a thorough preflight, and get off the ground as planned around 10 a.m. We had postcard views all the way to the Keys and landed at Marathon just after noon. Our show started at 3:30 p.m. and ended two hours later—and we had a blast.

Afterward, we said our goodbyes, drove to Marathon, and were ready to take off just after 8 p.m.—just as I had filed in my VFR flight plan.

On the flight down, I noted that we were only over water about 13 minutes, so the over-water portion would be equally short on our trip north. We took off into a moonless sky that was the darkest and blackest I had ever seen in my 56 years on this planet. There were no stars and no reflections.

I climbed out over the shallow water at a lower rate than usual to keep our airspeed up. The horizon was completely devoid of visual references, so I focused all my attention on the instruments. We were indicating 85 knots as we climbed, and I estimated a slower groundspeed thanks to the moderate headwind we’d have all the way home.

I asked my passengers to keep their eyes focused outside to look for anything in the sky, or on the ground, that would indicate we were still on planet Earth, and I put all of my attention to simply flying the airplane. I had logged some simulated instrument time with a flight instructor recently, and I was able to keep all the needles right where they belonged.

I engaged the autopilot and watched it follow our GPS track. We had a good signal from the Key West VOR and Marathon NDB. Situational awareness was not a problem.

The part I didn’t like was looking outside and seeing absolutely nothing.

I leveled off at 4,500 feet and took stock of our situation. We were in a single-engine airplane, over water, approaching the southwest tip of Florida where there would be nothing but wetlands, marshes, and the Everglades for the next 45 minutes. The closest dry land along our route was more than an hour away.

As the trip progressed, one of my passengers was looking outside as we flew into a thin cloud layer or fog bank for a few seconds. The wingtip strobe lights made it look like we were either in the middle of a tremendous lightning storm or a 1960s rock concert. I turned the strobes off because, well, that’s what the book says to do—and the strobes could be disorienting by creating the sensation of being in level flight even when the airplane is banking.

The aircraft was still straight and level and the engine gauges were in the green, but we were all beginning to feel a little “apprehensive,” as the famous Chuck Yeager might say. I was confident in my flying skills, but the lack of options in case of an emergency weighed on me.

After 18 minutes of flying in total darkness, I calculated, and the GPS confirmed, that we were over land, but not dry land. Everything on the aircraft was working perfectly, we had plenty of fuel, and ride was smooth, but I had growing misgivings. I polled my passengers, telling them of my concern. They agreed with me that the pitchblack night was disconcerting. I then made a 180-degree turn back to Marathon.

The turn created an amazing transformation as the lights from the upper Keys instantly came into view. The instant we saw the lights, everything seemed normal again. There was Earth below us, and we could see it. I started a shallow descent into Marathon, announced my intention over the common traffic advisory frequency, and touched down where we had lifted off about 40 minutes before.

We tied the airplane down, walked across the street to a Pizza Hut for a little dinner, and caught a ride to a local motel.

I was up at 6:15 the next morning, woke everyone, drank some coffee, and headed to the airport. We were off the ground at 7:05 a.m., and it was a picture-perfect flight all the way home. We had another performance that afternoon, and it was all made possible by the fact that we were able to fly down and back in less than five hours, instead of driving 14 hours.

Flying at night can be beautiful and alluring, but it’s the wrong place to be if something goes wrong. Could we have made the trip as I had planned the night before? After all, the aircraft certainly operated flawlessly, my instrument skills were good, and we only would have had to travel another hour or so over poor terrain. But we didn’t have a good Plan B if something went wrong, and that made me—and my very trusting passengers—very uncomfortable.

Looking back, I probably should have canceled the flight before taking off into that pitch-black, moonless, starless night. But it turned out to be a good learning experience, and I didn’t push it beyond the point of no return.

Jason Strong, AOPA 0852174, has been flying since 1971 and is a certificated commercial pilot with a multiengine rating and more than 850 hours flying time.