This was in a Grumman Tiger, an AA5B. I wasn't checked out in the Tiger before for night flying, and I've only flown it once at night before, so it was kind of interesting.
David, the instructor, put me through the paces. First, the lighting in the Tiger is...well, it's pretty poor. And depending on how you have the rheostat set, some of the instruments can be shadowed even when the lights are on. He also tells me about some of the quirks of it, including how the front pannel has circuit breakers for some items, and fuses for others (and the spare fuses are in the glove compartment, they're the little glass tube types (some cars use them).
The DME (Distance Measuring Equipment) is having problems and only works within about 5 miles of a radio beacon (normally, it'll tell you how far away you are, what your ground speed is, and how long it'll take to reach the station (at your current speed)). The unit has been checked, so it's probably the antenna. Since that'd require taking the whole plane in to be looked at, they want to make sure, so David had cleaned the antenna before takeoff. Also the transponder had had problems and they wanted to check that. The alternator had failed a week ago and was replaced. On the ground, when we were running checks, we were seeing an excessive voltage drop when we had certain lights on (red/green position lights on the wings were ok, flashing strobes were ok, landing light was ok, but the flashing red anticollision light on the take was making it drop a lot every time it flashed, the needle on the ammeter would do this little pulsing dance), and also when we had the pitot heat on (pitot tube is used to measure airspeed, it has heat on it, so prevent ice from forming when you're in a cloud; this was a VFR flight, so that's not a problem). We used the strobes, but not the anticollision light (I believe the strobes can count as the required anticollision light).
We did a normal takeoff and landing. The second time, there were two ATRs inbound, so they had us flying "right traffic" (right turns) to stay out of the way, as they were inbound from the opposite side. We see them both. Call in to request "the option", the first is cleared to land ahead of us, the second is still a good ways back, so we're cleared #2 to land and they tell us to keep it a bit tight, since #3 was also inbound. David pulls the power at that point to simulate an engine failure, so I have to do that landing as a simulated dead-stick. It went ok.
The next time around (back on left traffic), as I'm starting to slow down to start the descent, David turns the rheostat knob all the way down, turning off all the panel lights. OK. I have to land it with only visual references (the position of the nose controls the airspeed, and the throttle controls the rate of descent). The tower also tells me that they're going to be departing a Beechcraft 1900 before I land. Sure, whatever. As I'm turning the corner and was activating the flaps, David looks out and casually says, "Looks like the flaps aren't working." Out of habit, I look at the wing to see that...they aren't, and I was pressing the switch. There wasn't time to do any diagnostics as I was now turning on final. OK, a no-flap landing in that plane means you have to fly at about 5-10 knots faster. No big deal, the runway is 6600'.
We land. Before taking off again, David points to the front panel, where there's a gaping hole in the panel on the co-pilot's side where the fuse for the flaps should be. Holding the fuse in his hands he says, "So, you think it'd be fun to have to try to diagnose the problem, figure out which fuse, FIND the right fuse, and replace it, all while you're flying? I don't see why they just didn't make them all be circuit breakers."
One more time around, this time, on downwind or just as we turned on the base leg, I notice that the controls are very stiff. Normally the Tiger is a very good performing plane, very responsive. Now, I'm basically having to fight it. I can, it's responding, but it's a lot harder to move the controls. It doesn't feel like a cable is jammed. I'm not sure WHAT the deal is. I tell him to feel the yoke, that it's very stiff and unresponsive. He says, "Well, maybe you have the auto-pilot on" and reaches over and turns it off. Shit! I forgot that one. Said that they're designed to exert no more than 40 lbs of force, so that a pilot CAN override the auto-pilot's input, but it's not fun to have to do it for a long time. The Skyhawk doesn't have an auto-pilot and it had been a while since I had flown the Tiger.
After that, we go on to Cortland (ask the tower for a left turn out to Cortland, they say sure and tell us to report when we're clear of their airspace; the DME works for about 5 miles, so I know when we're clear). It's a small airport about 12 miles away with a runway aligned 90 degrees opposite to Ithaca, to work on some crosswind landings. I spot the beacon and find the airport (I'm getting better with that). Key the mic the right way and the lights come up. I love pilot controlled lighting, it's SO cool. Do a landing there. Then did another one with the lights off, including the landing light. He said the technique is similar to what seaplanes use when landing on glassy water (where you can't tell exactly where the surface is located). You fly it down into ground effect, very close, put the plane into the landing attitude, and then add just a little power which slows your descent rate and then just touch down. I did it, kind of, sort of. After a couple of touch and goes at Cortland, we go back to Ithaca. En route, we climb to 3500' and call Binghamton to see if they're receiving our transponder signals. They give us a squawk code and tell us that it's reporting our altitude to be 200' higher than we are, which is what it's been doing for a while, but it's legal (about at the limit, basically). The transponder is due for it's 24 month inspection next month, and they've been waiting till then to get it readjusted.
There's a little drizzle, the clouds are still high, but it's quite dark. Other than the lights from the towns and things, there's not much that can be seen.
It's just after 10pm and the tower has closed, so now Ithaca is an uncontrolled field. After talking to Binghamton, I head for Ithaca. Then I realize, that's not Ithaca. I head for Ithaca (and see the flashing beacon this time). Maybe I still need some work at spotting airports. David says, "That wasn't the airport, that was Dryden [a small town with like a couple blocks total of streetlights...kind of runway-ish]. You didn't want to land there." He tells me we'll do one more of the no landing light, no panel light landings. At this point, I'm getting better at judging what "the picture" should look like (the nose position with respect to the horizon, etc.). Coming in, as I flair, I add a little power. We start to rise a little then I cut it back a little and eventually we gently touch down on the ground (though I wasn't sure exactly when that'd happen).
We taxi back, and just after we clear the runway, we hear a bunch of pulses on the frequency. It's the DC-9. USAir's last flight of the day gets in after the tower closes, we tune to the Elmira Approach control frequency and hear as they're about 12 miles out and can switch to the advisory frequency. We probably shut down before they announced themselves. Sometimes the pilots aren't as familiar with non-towered procedures and tend to announce themselves when they're pretty close. Sort of a "here we come, get out of my way" type message (phrased differently).
Anyway, that was my flight, with all the gory details. As a check-out, it was a small milestone, but it was fun to have to do all that stuff.Written on December 4th, 1997 by Frank Adelstein.