Saturday, July 13, 2013

First solo night flight!

Plane: Cessna 172
Route: 40I-MGY
Weather: Clear, 75 degrees, wind 080 degrees at 5 knots

Might as well just come right out and say it - only took five years!

Yup, that's what happens when you fly out of a grass strip with no lights. The standard procedure during training is to line the runway with oil lanterns (it works better than you might suspect) so you can find it upon your return. Assuming the wind hasn't blown them out, at least. As you may imagine, Stewart's rule is that one can only land at night with a CFI on board.

For years I've said that some day I'll take a plane over to Wright Brothers before dark, do my takeoffs and landings to get night current, and then fly back in the morning. Reality has proven that to be a bit of a hassle. Not that it's time-consuming (the flight's less than five minutes) but it just hadn't been necessary. I don't usually have much of a reason to fly at night, so why go to all the trouble?

But tonight, approaching five years since my checkride, it actually made sense. We're flying to breakfast in the morning and I don't like taking off from the grass in a fully-fueled 172 with four adults, even if the performance charts say it should be just fine. And I was already at Stewart with my sister in the Cub, so I might as well just fly the plane to MGY tonight instead of driving back in the morning. And if it's already at MGY after sunset...

Plan in place, I departed Stewart just after sunset and was soon crossing midfield to enter a left downwind for Runway 2. I felt a tad behind the plane for some reason, taking a second to get on speed and configure everything as I throttled back abeam the numbers. However, it all came together and I made what was very likely my best-ever landing in the 172. I'm talking about a super-soft, kiss-the-pavement, are-we-still-flying, yoke way back landing. It was a beauty.

I took one more trip around the pattern and was well ahead of the airplane the whole time. The landing was again very good, if not a full 10/10. I taxied to the ramp and shut down. The airport was empty and I had some time to kill before I could make my, "three takeoffs and landings to a full stop during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise." So I pulled out the POH and read through the whole thing; it seemed like timely study material!

Lined up for takeoff on Runway 2 at Wright Brothers

It was now quite dark out as I climbed back into the airplane and started the engine, just past 10:00 pm. By the time I was lined up on the runway, I was safely into my "one hour past" period. Throttle smoothly in and we're rolling, runway lights flashing by faster and faster. Smooth pull back on the yoke at 60 mph (per that POH!) and I was soon climbing into the cool, smooth night sky. Man, I'd nearly forgotten how beautiful night flying can be.

Coming around for the first landing, I noticed a few fireworks displays. Perhaps rescheduled from the 4th after last week's ridiculously rainy weather? I continued around the pattern, cross-checking everything on the dimly-let gauges. Turning final, the PAPI came into view, red and white, you're alright - right on the proper glidepath. I added a little power that came off after crossing the threshold. You learn to expect to flare high due to the lights and I figured I'd slightly drop it in - but was instead rewarded with another very soft touchdown.

Four year hiatus? What four year hiatus?

I made two more trips around the pattern and caught myself before I made a stupid mistake. Prior to takeoff, I always say "lights, camera, action" to remind me to check the lights, transponder, and mixture/carb heat/flaps. Perhaps due in part to the dim lighting, I looked at the flaps gauge when I said "action" but didn't verify what it was indicating. However, as I turned my head to check the wing (another habit, I guess) before taxiing onto the runway, I saw the flaps were still at 30 degrees. I raised them and continued on - after making myself repeat the entire checklist, thoroughly this time. Checklists exist for a reason, to check things!

My patterns were relatively consistent, given the lack of the usual references

The other two landings were again smooth and stable. Nothing topped that first landing but they were all surprisingly good. I cranked the lights up to high one time as I thought it would be good practice but lowered them on short final before touching down; they were freakin' bright! When I shut down - for good this time - I'd logged 1.2 hours, 0.6 of which were at night.

Believe it or not, due primarily to the reasons mentioned earlier, this was my first solo night flight. Ever. It went perfectly and I'm glad to have my night currency back even if it gets no use and expires in 90 days. Not saying I'd launch on a 500 mile night cross-country now but I do feel like I'd be just fine landing someplace after sunset again.

VFR flight at night is a beautiful thing. Maybe I'll at least grab the 172, fly to MGY, and take some people up so they can experience it themselves in the coming months. Sure beats sitting at home in front of the computer.

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File 
Today's Flight: 1.2 hours
Total Time: 276.1 hours


  1. Awesome! Perfect landings after 4 years...not too shabby! ;)

    1. I claim no ability to replicate these results.

  2. Most excellent! Night flying can be such a joy: calm air, a quiet radio, and a very different perspective. Congrats, I know you've been wanting to do that for a long time.

    1. Thanks - it was great to get back up (solo, no less) after so long!