First Passengers on Night Cross-Country

Just a brief description of a flight. My friends Moof and Jenny have been up with me before (in the Skyhawk) so I know they're comfortable with flying. This time, Moof drove down to Ithaca for the day (he had it off) and then we flew up to Rochester to pick up Jenny, return to Ithaca, have dinner, and then they drove back together.

I decided to take the Tiger, since I had done some instrument practice in it previously and ... well, it's just a cool plane. I planned the flight and decided to fly it under IFR, even though the weather was nice (10,000' ceilings, unrestricted visibility). Around 3pm I stopped by the club to make sure a plane was available, reserve it, and get some information on the FBO there, and where to tell Jenny to meet us.

I zip home, get my flight bag, and go back to the club around 3:30pm and plan out the flight and get a weather briefing and file the flight plan for both the trip down there and the return trip. No surprises. Do the preflight inspection, and get things set. It's about 4:30 by the time we're about ready to go. We call Jen, and there is some confusion about where to meet us and when. She calls to make sure (turns out the FBO changed names) and calls us back. It's just after 5pm by the time we get into the plane.

I get the clearance ("as filed" -- ah, the joys of uncrowded airspace) and I think we had a wheels up departure time close to 5:20pm. The Tiger has nice climb performance in the cold air. Elmira gives me a "vector for climb" and I turned to the left, instead of the right. Ooops. They don't yell at me. We cross the field at 3000' and are on our way.

It's pretty uneventful. It starts to get dark and city lights start to become visible. Kind of neat. Canandaigua becomes visible, both the lake and the city at the north end of it. Shortly after that the glow of the lights of Rochester become visible. The DME indicates we're about 20 miles out. I start looking for the field, and Rochester Approach tells me to expect the visual approach for runway 25 and give us a descent. I know where it SHOULD be. Eventually, I see the beacon. Not much else, but I do see the beacon. Approach gives me a descent to 2500' "at pilot's discretion." We descend to 2500', and we're about 10 miles out and closing. About 5 miles out, Approach asks if we have the field in sight, and when we say we do, they tell us to contact the tower.

I do and we're cleared to land. It'd be nice if I could see WHERE the hell the actual runway is. The VOR and DME indicate I'm on course, and the beacon confirms that. But I still can't see the damn thing. I'm down to about 2000', and ask the tower to turn up the lights.

"Is that any better?"

"Uh...can you cycle them?"

He does and around that time, I see the lights for runway 28 (a big runway, 25 is a smaller one for GA (General Aviation) planes). Knowing the layout, I know where to look and FINALLY see the runway. I was essentially entering the area on a left base leg and the runway lights tend to be fairly directional and hard to see if you're perpendicular to the runway. I tell the tower that I have the runway in sight (much to their relief, I'm sure) and do the landing checklist (mixture rich, fuel pump on, landing lights, flaps, etc.) and pull the power back pretty low, since we're pretty high. We've also got room for a normal final approach, so I do a forward slip as I turn onto final. That proves to be very useful and we land, though consuming a good bit of the runway.

Taxi off and then I have to find the FBO. At the club I had been told of where to go. Eventually I wind up in a tie-down area and decide not to piss away more money on the Hobbs taxiing and should just walk into one of the nearby buildings and ask (I called on Unicom, but got no response; in retrospect, I should have asked the tower for instructions).

Moof and I wander around for about 20 minutes. At "Corporate Wings" there was a group class discussing things and a girl on the phone that was too busy chatting with a friend to acknowledge us. Whatever. There's another building that's close. We go in there and it's desserted. Nothing. Now, I'm not into incriminating myself or others, but let's just say that doors should have been locked (our flying club got nailed by the FAA once when a door was left unattended for about 30 seconds).

Frustration is setting in. We return to the girl who's still on the phone. I get her attention and ask about the FBO. She says it's the same company, but their building for GA planes is on the other side of the ramp, a few building down. OK, sure. We walk past the tied-down planes, across a field, over a snow drift (well, a drift that was metamorphosizing into dirt) and get to the next building.

At this point, it's like some bizarre adventure game. We had one way into the airport, and the girl told us the combination to the door so we could get back to the ramp. I had the feeling that if we could get the blue key, then we could deactivate the nuclear reactor and save the day... OK, so I played too many adventure games. The next FBO is for corporate business jets. I think that was were Al Haynes gave his talk on the DC-10 flight that lost the tail engine and all hydraulic control. The hangar is beautiful. It's a nice facility. There's a citation parked getting refuled. The girl at the desk was dressed in a quite professional business attire. We wander in and ask about the GA FBO. She's a bit confused. Worse, I use the old name of the FBO. Then I ask if the other place had another building for small planes. That helped. She pointed around. Rather than go on the street, I wanted to stay within the airport's area (I figured it'd be easier than trying to get BACK in if we got locked out). On the way out, Moof, who is diabetic, walks over to the coffee set up, opens the bowl of sugar, pours a handful into his hand, and walks out. Somehow, I don't think the corporate business jet world gets people with that behavior too often.

We walk across a road (not a taxiway, a road) and get to the right ramp. Jenny's there, wondering if we had killed ourselves or what. The FBO has a courtesy van give us a ride to our plane. And after a quick walkaround, we're ready to go.

This time Moof's in the back and Jen's in front. I go through the checklists, start the engine, do the other check lists and we're ready to go. I call Clearance Delivery. Nothing. OK, I try Ground Control. He says if I'm looking for a clearance, I should contact Clearance Delivery. Whatever. I try again. This time someone answers and gives me the clearance. I call Ground Control and we're ready to taxi.

Taxiing at night at a large, unfamiliar airport can be tricky. Fortunately the instrument approach plates have the airport maps on them, with all the taxiways labeled. I'm still double and triple checking, making sure everything makes sense. I make it to the end of runway 25 without incident.

While doing the final checks before calling the tower, I realize I hadn't switched to the other tank when I restarted. Minor ooops. Loosing the engine at night wouldn't be pleasant (though truthfully, we weren't really pushing the endurance of even 1 tank, so I knew we had a good safety margin; normally I switch fuel tanks every hour (except for the first time, which is after a half-hour), and the travel time was about 45 minutes total). Otherwise, everything is in order. I call, we're cleared for takeoff, we taxi onto the runway and go. It's quite pretty at night with all the city lights. It's now just after 7pm. Moof pointed out when we passed over their house. After some vectors, they give us a turn to the airway and have us "resume own navigation."

I try to tune in the Ithaca VOR on NAV2 and it picks it up. The DME says it's just over 50 miles away. So I call ATC and ask if we can proceed "direct Ithaca" and the request is approved. Save a little trouble. It's weird at night, how the landmarks are all different. And what you can and can't see. Very peaceful. And having flown the Tiger the previous day, I was comfortable with it. At 40 miles out, I pick up the ATIS at Ithaca. I turn to Jen and say, "Hmmm, you know, it's about time that Rochester hands us off to Elmira." And about 1 second after I finish that statement, we get the handoff.

Ithaca was landing on runway 14, and I was on the 140 radial of the VOR, so that lent itself to a nice straight in approach. Again, it was a challenge to see the beacon, let alone the runway. Although I knew the VASI is visible for quite a distance. As we got closer, I could see the beacon. The DME helped a lot with the situational awareness. I could see the runway lights about 5 miles out. The wind was from 150 at 10 knots. The approach went slowly, but uneventfully. There definitely was a headwind, because it required a very short distance to stop (almost could have stopped at the first taxiway). We taxied in, shut down, refueled and put the plane away.

It was about 8:30pm by the time we left for dinner and we were seated and ordering by 9pm. It was a beautiful night for a flight, the air was pretty smooth, visibility good, and just generally a nice flight. However, considering that it's a 2 hour drive, it was 2pm when we started talking about it and 9pm by the time we had finished, it's hard to argue that flying saves time. Total time, including taxi, run up, and such, in addition to flying was 2.0 hours, round trip. Not bad, though there's a lot of extra time it takes.

But, we weren't going to save time, we were going so we could fly and so we could enjoy it. So we did accomplish our goal. Also, this was the first time I've had passengers for a night flight that weren't pilots.

Addendum: Well, as I was writing this up last night, apparently Moof and Jenny were trying to call me, because about 5 minutes out of Ithaca they were 4th in a line of cars to hit a deer. They weren't hurt and apparently it just tore up the underside of his car a little (his car with about 700 miles on it total) and redecorated it with deer innards. Except for possible incursions on the runways during takeoff and landing, generally you don't have to worry about hitting deer with planes (other than magic reign deer, and that's only on Christmas Eve).

Written on Feb. 16th, 1998 by FNA.