Safety Publications/Articles

Professionally Speaking

Learning From Experience

I will never forget being checked out for night flight, oh, those many decades ago.

The location was Ben Epps Field (named for the patriarch of the Epps family of great aviation repute) in Athens, Georgia. The flight instructor was Fred Clark, who owned the FBO and was by no means a young man, even in that bygone era. The aircraft was a Cessna 172. It was the dead of winter, cold and windy.

I was a low-time private pilot, not signed off for night flight (this was a long time ago, before night flying became a standard part of earning the private certificate), and Fred himself had agreed to fill this gap in my otherwise vast aviation knowledge.

Fred and I did the preflight, took off our heavy jackets, climbed in, fastened our seatbelts, went through the prestart checklist, cranked up, and began to taxi. Then Fred said, "You know, I didn't check to see if all of the outside lights are working, did you?" Well, no, I hadn't. "Shoot," he said, "I reckon we'd better shut down, get out, and check them." (This, young folks, was back before Cessna 172s had rear windows.)

I shut down, undid the belts, got out, donned my jacket, and checked all of the lights while Fred stayed in the airplane. Then I took off my jacket, crawled back in, fastened the belts, went back through the prestart checklist, cranked up, and started taxiing. I got a little farther that time - almost to the runway, in fact.

"Damn," Fred blurted out. "I don't have a flashlight. Do you?" Well, no, I didn't have one either.

Fred muttered, as if he had never thought about it before, "You know, it's dark out there. You reckon we could see anything if we lost the electrical system?" I hadn't thought about it before, and I said so. "I tell you what," he said, "let's turn out all the lights and see what it looks like." We did, and we couldn't. "Damn," he said, "I can't see a thing, can you?" No, not really. Fred thought about it, and finally, with a huge sigh, he reckoned we'd better go back and get a flashlight.

I taxied back, shut down, unfastened the belts, got out, put on the jacket, and went inside the FBO to buy a flashlight and batteries from Fred's son, who had them all laid out on the counter waiting for me. I guess he'd been through this before. Then it was back outside, through the jacket and belt routine, and back into the airplane. Fred tested the flashlight and commented that he surely could see a lot better with it. He then asked, "Where you reckon we ought to put it?" We tried various places, and he discovered something wrong with each one; finally, he decided that between my legs might be a great place to put it. In all the years since, I've never found a better place to put the flashlight.

After that, we actually got to fly.

Funny thing, I don't really remember what that night checkout cost me, and that was at a time when I was, shall we say, financially challenged. What I remember is that Fred found a way to demonstrate the care, thought, and preparation required for night flight. He didn't just tell me; we lived through the problems together. He even managed to put a cost on my oversights by making me get out in that cold air. Perhaps most important of all, Fred even made it interesting and fun for himself.

What could have been a routine flight became a great memory and remains so to this day. It was fun, it was memorable, and it was very effective.

By Ralph Hood

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