Friday, July 31, 2009

Up in the night sky

Plane: Cessna 172
Instructor: Dave
Route: 40I-MWO-OXD-I19-MGY-40I
Weather: Clear, 66 degrees, wind calm

Stewart has a 90-day rule on aircraft currency, basically meaning if you haven't flown an aircraft in the past three months you have to go up again with an instructor before you can fly solo. I was past that mark in the 172 and I also wanted some experience flying it near gross before I try flying it full of myself and three pax. Seeing as I had to go up with a CFI and you can't fly out of Stewart solo at night I figured what the heck, why not do both?

Night flight is one of my favorite things about General Aviation, especially when the moon's half full and the sky is completely clear as it was tonight. Air that's smooth as glass and the lights twinkling below make for a spectacular time aloft. Gina also hadn't ever flown at night so I was excited for her to come up with me and Dave. Add in a backpack I filled with 30 pounds of paper and some extra flight gear in the back seat and we had a mostly-full 172.

I ended up at work until around 7:00 so I was glad to still make it down to the airport in time to do my preflight before the sun went down. Everything checked out as Dave drove the golf cart alongside the runway to put out the lanterns. Once the sun had set, we all hopped in and I taxied over to the fuel pump to top off the tanks. He told me we'd use most of the runway so I took us to the very end of the grass before beginning my takeoff roll. I quickly noticed the most pronounced difference of flying near gross, which was the significant amount of back force I needed on the yoke to get the nose off the ground.

Soon we were climbing into the dark night sky (with me holding in a considerable amount of right rudder - another definite difference from the 150) headed West. I first took us over to Middletown, circling around to enter a right downwind for Runway 23. My landing was about as smooth as you could ever ask for, so I knew it was all downhill from there. Sure enough, it was the best landing of the night. Anyway, I taxied us back and went around the pattern again to set up for a short field landing. This time I really planted us down good, which - while acceptable in a short field situation - was more a result of me succumbing to the illusion of being lower than I realized due to the runway lights.

Turning near Middletown with the moon in full view

Then it was off to Oxford, an airport I flew past while on a solo cross-country flight last year but never had touched down at. We couldn't spot it for the longest time so I keyed the lights on the CTAF and it appeared out of thin air a few miles in front of us. Due to the complete lack of traffic and calm winds, I landed on Runway 23 and then made a 180 and departed on Runway 5. The landing was decent but my favorite thing at OXD were the houses next door with red obstruction lights on their roofs. I want that! We quickly climbed away and headed back East towards Dayton, as I used the tall television towers (they're about 1,200 feet AGL) for some easy visual navigation.

We were about 5 miles south of downtown but got a great view of the skyline and streets all lit up below. Staying just South of the radio towers kept us out of Dayton's Class Charlie airspace and I headed further East so we could land at Greene County Airport. There was some high traffic about 5 miles Northeast of us and descending so we kept an eye out until it was clear they had turned away. As I turned base for Runway 25 we could see they were racing at Kil Kare Speedway that's a mile or so from the airport and Gina and Dave got a nice view of the action below. Again, the landing was decent if not super smooth and we taxied down and I departed Runway 7 for another view of the race on the way out. Turns out someone hit someone or something, as all we saw were flashing yellow lights.

I climbed back up to 2,500 and flew off towards Wright Brothers. Gina wanted to fly over our house at night and an approach to Runway 20 provides exactly that. Headed towards the airport, I knew exactly where it should be from all the landmarks on the ground. Nonetheless, I couldn't find the damn airport for the life of me and didn't even see the beacon. I didn't let Dave tell me for a while until he finally pointed right where I was looking and somehow this time I caught the beacon. Maybe it was the old 'use your perhipheral vision at night' trick we all learned about back in our primary training.

Another plane was in the pattern and I had heard him on the radio making calls as he approached from the West. Since I wanted to use Runway 20 and he was in the pattern for Runway 2, I made a couple 360s a few miles out to give us some spacing before entering the pattern. My first landing actually had us turning base to final before the house and it was again somewhat firm. I taxied back and elected to stay in the pattern and set up for a short field this time as that would result in a longer final. We went right over the house (Gina reports our landscape lighting shining up into the trees looks very cool from above) and I set it down just past the threshold and got on the brakes for a very short landing.

A nice view of the lights shimmering underneath the wing

While it did not feel like that long since the first takeoff, we'd already been up over two hours so I took off and turned towards Stewart. I asked Dave if there were any other things I should practice before flying a full airplane and he simply pointed out the increased control forces (elevator on takeoff and right rudder when climbing) that I noted earlier and said I was doing a good job flying. I'm definitely glad I elected to first fly a full plane with an instructor on board but at this point I think I just need to get out there and fly and gain some experience.

Contrary to my experience at Wright Brothers minutes earlier, I managed to spot the lanterns lining the runway at Stewart at least five miles out. Go figure, I miss the high-intensity instrument landing lights but spot the oil lanterns. I turned base perhaps a hair too early and was quickly reminded of the illusions of Stewart at night as I ended up far too high on final. Luckily our 172 is of the older variety, so idle power and all 40 degrees of flaps gave me plenty of sink and I touched down a few hundred feet past the threshold.

Forgive the lengthy post, but even what was essentially a flight in a big circle left me with a lot of thoughts after 2 1/2 hours aloft. Gina took a few photos that I included in the post - they came out alright considering the lack of light. I'm so glad I was able to finally get in some more night hours, as it's such a wonderful time to be in the air. I know they'll let me go park a 150 at Wright Brothers overnight and fly it back to Stewart in the morning, so I really need to take advantage of that to keep up my currency. All told, tonight was one of those low-key flights that reminds you how special this whole flying thing can be.

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File
Today's Flight: 2.5 hours
Total Time: 114.0 hours