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Night flights

Pilot, writer, husband, and father of five, Mark R. Twombly lives in southwestern Florida.

Pilot, writer, husband, and father of five, Mark R. Twombly lives in southwestern Florida.

We lifted off the lighted runway into a black night sky, and turned northbound in the climb. After leveling off at cruise altitude I glanced out the right cockpit window and thought I noticed a faint suggestion of light. I stared intently at the eastern horizon for a few moments. Yes, now I was sure of it. The slow, drowsy awakening of day had begun.

Having a front-row seat positioned miles above the surface of the Earth to witness the spectacle of darkness retreating from the dawn is one of the great pleasures of flying. The show starts early, though; I was fumbling for my buzzing alarm at 4:15 that morning.

Unless you're regularly flying cargo, or passengers on red-eye routes, and are used to the schedule, flying at night probably involves some odd hours — getting up very early, or staying up after taps has played at your house. The disruption in the normal daily rhythm and routine, combined with much-reduced vision and some unfamiliar sensations, make night flight very different than what we're used to during the day.

On that pre-dawn-departure, I was a spectator to the complete transformation of black night into bright day, and it triggered an eagerness and anticipation for what the new day would bring. We had three more legs to fly that day. The post-frontal weather included icy clouds and unusually fierce southerly headwinds. I relished the challenge. If it had been a day-into-night flight in those same conditions, with three more legs to go, I wouldn't have been so eager.

A few weeks earlier we had departed Lafayette, Louisiana, for southwest Florida, and an entirely different sensory experience. We flew out of a golden, fading western sky and into a viscous darkness over the Gulf of Mexico so heavy and complete that it seemed to have been poured over the Earth. That day-into-night flight evoked more somber emotions than does night into day. Maybe it was my subconscious speaking up. "Hey, dude, do you realize that you're about to turn another day older, and looking like it, too. As for the wiser part, that remains to be seen. Don't screw up."

I recently logged a couple more night flights, each different in its own way. The first was a 40-minute solo cross-country in my airplane. I had spent a weekend in central Florida on a story, and was in a relaxed mood on the evening ride back to the airport. We pulled into the parking lot at dusk, and by the time I had loosened the tiedown ropes, preflighted the airplane, and buckled into my seat, full and complete darkness prevailed.

Even though it was early, the airport was still and quiet. While taxiing I spotted one open T-hangar with the lights on and two souls in silhouette, but there were no other airplanes on the move and no one on the unicom frequency.

I was already suffering the inherent limitations of the workings of the eye in low ambient light conditions — the degradation of central vision and thus the need for greater reliance on peripheral vision to detect detail and color — so caution was necessary to navigate the confusing jumble of ramp, taxiway, and runway lights. I moved at a snail's pace, airport chart at the ready, to the runup area.

No one acknowledged my announced intention to depart, and with a last look ahead and down each side of the crossing runway, I powered up, checked the gauges, and concentrated on tracking the runway centerline illuminated in the landing light.

A nice benefit of night flying compared to day is cooler air temperatures and the increased performance that results. The airplane accelerated and climbed briskly, and soon another advantage of night flight became apparent — no bumps. The daytime thermals that characterize Florida flying had subsided, taking with them pesky turbulence. I was treated to what a floatplane pilot might call glassy air conditions.

I banked south and climbed to 3,000 feet. The direct route home took me over increasingly rural land, and gradually fewer and fewer lights appeared. Normally when I fly VFR I ask air traffic control for radar traffic advisories, but not tonight. The air was too calm, the night too big, to break the spell with talk of altitudes and squawk codes.

A few nights later I was a back-seat passenger in a Cessna 206 going to Orlando International Airport. We took off at about 7:30 p.m. and spent much of the trip in instrument meteorological conditions on the gauges (if you can call a Garmin 1000 panel "on the gauges"). It's not much different than during the day, except that when flying over a town of any size the clouds are suffused with the light from below.

You don't have to be immersed in clouds to experience this. A few years ago we were eastbound over western Kansas in clear, dark air on top of a solid undercast. Even though we couldn't see them, it was easy to pick out the small, widely scattered prairie towns. Each one projected a soft glow in the undercast, like a child under a blanket playing with a flashlight.

It was even possible to gauge the size of the town by the size of the glow. It was an eerie, surreal effect, unique to the night.

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