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Into the night

The three of us on board the Beechcraft A36 Bonanza lapsed into a comfortable quiet as we watched the Mid-Atlantic states scroll by on the life-sized moving map out the window. Connecticut turned into New York and then New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and finally Maryland as we slipped into the pattern at Frederick Municipal on that fall Sunday morning for an arrival home after nearly a week at AOPA Aviation Summit in Hartford. With two of the six seats removed, we had gear stacked nearly floor to ceiling in every nook and cranny. Even then, the old Bonanza, a product of the Nixon era, sprinted upward at 1,000 feet per minute right after takeoff, still more than 100 pounds short of its maximum gross weight. With our full load of fuel, we could have continued on to Chicago, Louisville, Atlanta, or Charlotte.

Tom HainesAs soon as we sat down to brief the flight I knew I had underprepared. “So there’s nothing else we need to know about flying into Maryland Airport tonight?” Adrian Eichhorn probed after I had pointed out that according to the sectional the 3,000-foot runway has lights. Just the fact that he was asking the question confirmed to me that there was something else we needed to know. Eichhorn didn’t leave me hanging for long before flipping open the Airport/Facility Directory to point out the note in very small type that prohibits nighttime takeoffs and landings at the small airport just south of Washington, D.C. OK, so that’s one very good reason not to go there this evening.

Eichhorn, a CFII, aircraft owner, and airline pilot, confessed that he knew the details so well because he had once been forced to leave an airplane at the airport years earlier after he and a friend landed there at night. After a thorough chewing out by the airport manager, they left the airplane there until the next day. The tidbit is just one that Eichhorn shares during a night flying seminar he frequently gives at Beechcraft Pilot Proficiency Programs (BPPP), AOPA Summit, and other pilot gatherings. Night flying safety is a passion of his, developed after a friend and experienced pilot died in a night flying accident.

Eichhorn is a big fan of the A/FD when it comes to night flying. He says it is the only source that carries a complete reference to types of lighting systems and other nighttime nuances necessary for safe flying. We all learned to rely on the A/FD as instrument students, yet frequently pilots ignore it as they gain experience, relying on other information sources. But with more than a dozen types of approach lighting systems and numerous variations of those, no source but the A/FD provides complete information. Even then, few pilots understand the nuances of one type of system versus some others. “Airport lights are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. But most important, do the lights work?” he asks. “Always check notams before a night flight. A failed PAPI may be an annoyance during the day; it may be critical at night.”

To help pilots prepare for night flights, Eichhorn uses an acronym he created: NIGHT. Notams (check Notams D for airport lighting outages and changes); Illusions (Aeronautical Information Manual Chapter 8 discusses them); Glideslope (unless you know the area well, consider not landing at night at an airport that doesn’t have an electronic or visual glide-slope); How do I control the lighting systems? (Refer to the A/FD); Terrain (VFR charts show maximum elevation figures, IFR en route charts show off-route obstruction clearance altitudes—all of which should be considered minimum altitudes at night unless you are certain of the terrain around you).

With the briefing complete, we launched from Manassas, Virginia, in my Bonanza for what was my first nighttime proficiency flight that included air work—after more than three decades of flying. The ILS approach to Virginia’s Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport started out just fine under the bright December moon. As the glideslope needle slid down to one dot high, I selected gear down and instead of the expected groaning of the gear motor, all I got was a red indicator light. (Sigh.) As a Bonanza owner and BPPP instructor, Eichhorn knows all the tricks. He had pulled the gear motor circuit breaker, located just ahead of his left knee—or at least that was what I hoped had happened. We had agreed that I was on my own; I was to operate as if he weren’t there. No way was I going to troubleshoot a gear failure while sliding down a glideslope into the night. I keyed the mic, confessed the anomaly, and asked the tower controller for a climb and vector away from the airport to troubleshoot. I declined his offer of a flyby to check the gear, suspecting that if I sacrificed my right shoulder muscles to the Gear Crank Gods that the electrons would once again flow successfully. Sure enough, after I had struggled to crank the gear down, the push of the CB magically restored the system, and the gear retracted as it should. But as I caught my breath after the laborious cranking, something didn’t look right. The airplane was rolling to the left, airspeed picking up. I leveled off and noted that the autopilot was suddenly dark. Obviously the gremlin in the right seat had discovered the autopilot CB. A voice in the dark announced that it wouldn’t be working again for the rest of the night.

The second attempt at the ILS approach went without a hitch, the gear lowering as it should as we slid through the smooth night air. After the missed approach, we headed for a nearby VOR to do some air work. Stalls, steep turns, and emergency descents in the dark. While especially challenging at night, I was helped by a moon so bright we could pick out details in the fields below well enough that we felt we could safely choose a landing spot if we had to. I would hope to be so blessed in the case of a real nighttime emergency.

And that was just the beginning of our nighttime adventure. By the time the approach lights back at Manassas slid underneath the wings, I was tired, but confident in my night flying —and anxious to fly some more.

To download a copy of Eichhorn’s Night Flying safety card, which includes all sorts of night flying tips, go online. E-mail the author at [email protected]; follow on Twitter: tomhaines29. Editor in Chief Tom Haines flies his Bonanza A36 on assignment for AOPA—day or night.

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