It was early spring and I needed a 250-nm straight-line, nonstop solo flight as well as a minimum of two hours of night flight to satisfy the cross-country requirements for my commercial rating. This flight was a beautiful and uneventful 3.2-hour night flight from Van Nuys, California, to Mesquite, Nevada.
For the rest of my trip, having satisfied the commercial requirement, I planned to fly around the red rocks of the Zion National Park area, land at St. George, Utah, for fuel, and then fly on to Death Valley National Park in California for the weekend. As with the first leg of my trip, I had carefully preplanned these routes on my flight log and in my GPS.
Having arrived at Mesquite at about 11:45 p.m., I was tired and so I rested well into the morning. It was early to mid-afternoon by the time I left for St. George. Because of the late hour and the moderate turbulence over the mountains, I flew straight to St. George instead of flying around the Zion area. Once on the ground at St. George, I had a very late lunch and relaxed a little at the airport restaurant while marveling at the view.
Prior to my departure for Death Valley, I considered the fact that I would be arriving at my destination at night. It was late in the day, I was a little tired, and I had planned this trip for a day VFR flight. I considered staying at St. George for the night, but I had a reservation at the campground in Death Valley and I really wanted to be there for the entire weekend, as planned. Having made the trip at night once before years earlier (though I can't say it was without anxiety) and having confidence in my flight planning and my ability, I set out for the two-hour trip to Death Valley at nearly 6 p.m., with the sun setting at about 6:15 p.m.
The first part of the flight was uneventful. While in flight, I changed my to be more direct as well as to follow the freeway. I became a little anxious after departing Las Vegas to the west. I had planned to fly within 2 miles of an 11,915-foot mountain (my cruising altitude was 10,500). This would have been beautiful during the day, but much too close for comfort at night. Fortunately, there was enough twilight for me to make out the outline of the mountain and I altered my course about 15 degrees to give the mountain a wide berth. At the same time, I became painfully aware that I had not planned this trip for a night flight, and I was very uncomfortable flying over black, hostile terrain.
It was the blackest night I can remember-moonless-and I could not see anything but my instruments and occasional clusters of lights marking small settlements. It was impossible to see where the mountains were, and although I knew the area very well, there was no way I was going to descend along a heading that I "believed" was OK. I therefore maintained 8,500 feet until directly over Furnace Creek, Death Valley, verifying my location with the GPS and the airport beacon.
Now for the "fun" part. As most airport lighting systems give the brightest lights with seven mic clicks, with five and three clicks being progressively dimmer, I followed this procedure. However, every time I got to seven clicks the beacon quit! It seems that at Death Valley the light procedure is five clicks on and seven clicks off (as I learned later). I had read the current airport/facility directory to make sure I had the correct frequency, but it had not occurred to me that the lights were nonstandard, and having been to Death Valley before I didn't read further. The beacon operation was confusing, disconcerting, and could easily have become distracting. Not knowing the number of clicks necessary to get the beacon to light and stay on was my fault, but I finally found a combination that kept the beacon on long enough to identify the airport. I could easily see the lights of Furnace Creek, so I began a circling descent. It then became painfully apparent that there were no runway lights! I descended to about 1,500 feet msl initially while circling the airport, deciding what to do. It was so darn dark that I could not see any part of the runway, and I could not even tell the area where the runway was. Had I not been there before, I would have had no idea. Even so, initially (at the higher altitude) I headed for the beacon, only to realize that the runway was to the southwest of the beacon. After several passes, I could only see the runway when directly over it. Finally, after learning the approximate area where the runway was, I descended to pattern altitude and began my first approach.
My reasoning for continuing was that I knew the area, I had a landing light, and I did not feel comfortable diverting to an unplanned alternate. But make no mistake, I did not feel comfortable with the situation and my "little voice" was telling me to go somewhere else. Still, I continued. I could not see where the runway began. Only when I was on top of Runway 15 could I tell exactly where it was, and I adjusted my position accordingly. I initially found myself much too high on every approach and by the time I got aligned and low enough to land, I ran out of runway, having to go around. I made pass after pass, each time being too high, until finally I began approaching much lower, too low, in order to get down prior to the end of the runway. Once, while on such a low approach and while looking at the GPS in an effort to align myself with the runway, I looked at the GPS a little too long and found myself dangerously low: 100 to 150 feet agl.
I circled left on each circuit, flew out 2 to 3 nm, and made a straight-in approach to Runway 15. I felt this was safer under the circumstances than making right traffic (which was called for in the A/FD). While flying away from the airport and especially while turning base, I found myself in a "black hole," unable to see anything at all outside. I had to use only my instruments to maintain control and avoid spatial disorientation. Someone trying to keep the airplane upright by outside reference during this period would likely end up like John F. Kennedy, Jr. I am very thankful that I completed my instrument rating.
I made maybe 10 passes before finally landing. The outcome was anything but certain. With heavy breaking, I managed to just barely get stopped before the end of the runway.
As I expressed previously, I had a feeling in my gut that I shouldn't do this-still, I continued. This time things turned out all right, but the results of continuing under the circumstances as I did could easily have been different. Never again will I ignore my instincts!
Mountains surround Death Valley. I knew where I was and I am very familiar with the Death Valley area, but I was not familiar, nor prepared for, an unplanned alternate. Nevertheless, what I should have done was to head for an alternate as soon as I determined that a safe landing was not assured. I knew, in the back of my mind, that Beatty, Nevada, wasn't far away, and I had seen its beacon earlier. I therefore knew about where it was, and there is no doubt in my mind that I could have safely gone there.
Be sure to plan enough fuel to make the destination, then the alternate, and still have at least 45 minutes of reserve. This is the IFR requirement and it is very prudent for all night flights, as well as for day flights when weather is questionable. I would feel even better with fuel for destination, alternate, and a one-hour reserve. Also, always plan night flights over roads (major ones, if possible) and general areas of civilization.
Stephen Vige, AOPA 1411181, is a private, instrument-rated pilot who has been flying for three years, with just under 300 hours of flight experience. He is currently working on his commercial rating and intends to become a flight instructor and work in corporate and charter operations.
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