I spent my Friday and Saturday night last weekend doing night flights with my CFI before Daylight Savings Time started Sunday. Most people would prefer to be out with friends, maybe at a party, watching a movie.. something. Not me.
Friday night started with the ground school lesson on night flying. Rods and cones, the eye's adaptation to darkness and how to preserve it, optical illusions and surviving after the crash at night. How easy it is to fly into clouds or mountains when you can't see them. Stuff like that. I think I will avoid flying at night unless the moon is full and there are no clouds in the sky. Just to feel more comfortable with my chances :) It sure is beautiful to fly at night though. I've been wanting to do that for a very long time. The ground school was conducted in a room in the dark. Sorta strange but fun as my eyes adjusted and demonstrated how you can't see what is right in front of you if you focus hard in the dark.. but peripheral vision works well.
After ground school and ducking out of the well lit club "lounge" we went out to the plane. There was a Piper that had pulled out and was starting up right in front of us. Problem is, he started up and the strobes came on on that plane.. as you may have noticed if you've looked at a plane at night. Strobes are BRIGHT. We hid behind the instrument panel (me behind my kneeboard) and tried not to let the flashes destroy the wonderful night vision we worked so hard to nurture.
The piper finally pulled away and off we went, for 8 trips around the pattern. The 8 trips were what the doctor ordered because I needed a total of night 10 takeoffs and landings for my PPL requirements and 8 in the pattern + 2 on a cross country = 10. See, pilots do math too.
The key item of concern for night flying is, you can't see as well. Yeah, its that deep. Many of the visual queues you use during the day just aren't there, or aren't quite as visible as you like. For instance, if you let it the optical illusion of landing at night can cause you to "pile drive" straight into the run way because you don't see the runway as well as you're used to. My CFI's solution to this problem - "don't let it suck you in". You know, I'm finally understanding what that means. I can't explain it though... just trust me when I say, 8 times around the pattern and the only "problem" I had was not maintaining Vy on climb out. My landings suddenly were back to very good... I just focused really hard on making absolutely sure I was flaring at the right time and this time I did the little adjustments for the landing. One time I overcontrolled and I fixed THAT quickly :)
It was nice, very nice ... while I was flying I was focused on what I was doing in each phase of the pattern, not worried about if I did it well or not. I just did it.
The next night, Saturday night, time for night cross country. To the garden spot of the central valley Oakdale. Apparently there used to be a chocolate factory in this town, but it wasn't there anymore. Not that I could see the town at night.. all I saw was dark and lights from towns, highways, airport beacons and a little bit of moonlight reflected off little lakes and reservoirs. High clouds blocked most of the stars.
I planned the flight from RHV to O27 (Oakdale). We took off, got flight following there, and flew from airport beacon to airport beacon, adjusting for winds and playing find the airport beacon. It was a ton of fun. We go there, flew into the pattern (my pattern entries aren't great, I think its because I have tons of practice flying at one airport, very VERY little practice going or landing anywhere else) and landed.
It was unnerving turning base in the dark at this airport... all of the sudden all I could see in front of me was dark. When you turn base, you are descending... into the dark. I could see a vague haze of light from the landing lights hitting the slightly moist air.. Scott asked me what the field elevation was. 237 feet I tell him and hope the elevation *around* the field wasn't much higher! Finish the base turn, and see the runway lights. Turn final and come in for a landing.. no problem, even in the dark at a new airport.
This particular plane pulls hard to the left on landing, I don't know why but my landing was left of center line (Scott wants his students ON the center line). But I didn't get upset, just corrected and made note to expect this on the return trip. I haven't flown this particular plane in a long time so ... that's what happens.
Return trip was cool... we adjusted for the extra corrections we had to make on the way out, and the adjustment was perfect. Strangely perfect... I'll explain sometime if someone wants to hear why that was strange. On the approach back into the Bay Area valley, we flew over Calaveras Reservoir, which is perched in the hills over the bay. In the dark. That was unnerving, my first time returning over Calaveras and I couldn't see the hills I knew I was flying straight towards. Made a quick note to self, next time know EXACTLY what the minimum safe altitude for the route of flight is over every part of the route. I wasn't in danger because Scott's flown that route probably thousands of times, and we had a GPS with terrain warning capabilities. No problem, got over the hill, into the lights of the valley.
He coached me more specifically through the pattern entry for RHV and I did it really well, good pattern, good landing. Debriefed on the taxi back.. he said he is very close to signing off on me doing a cross country on my own, which he'd never even considered for a student before after just two cross countries (one day and one night). Says my planning and execution are excellent just need to do better at "flying the airplane". Which is Scott code for operating in an unfamiliar airport environment I believe and handling whatever happens smoothly. He's right about that... I've been out of RHV airspace a total of 7 times, 6 times to one airstrip, 1 time to another one, before my two cross countries.
So, next lesson will be going to three different little airports in the area to give me more opportunities to "fly the airplane". Sounds like fun :)
Some people, younger, more exciting perhaps, would prefer to go out on a hot date or to the bars or movies or a show on a Friday and Saturday night, but for me... a couple nights of flying suits me just fine :)