The First Non-Local Solo Night Flight

Even 8 months after getting my license, there are still "firsts." Last night (Fri. night) was beautiful and clear. I get home and am thinking that it might be a good night for...a night flight. Perhaps even a cross country flight (get some x-c hours and some night experience, which I don't have much of). So I plan a flight north to an airport just south of Lake Ontario (it's Fulton/Oswego County, call letters "N00"), I've been there before. Get a weather briefing, things sound good (at least till midnight, uglier after that, and indeed it was cloudy and snowy today). Work out the times, fuel, etc. for the Cessna 152, get to the club around 7:30pm.

The Skyhawk (C-172) is in the front of the hangar, easy to get at. I can fly that. Behind it is the C-150, which I can fly, but its instruments are less accurate, and I don't trust it as much for a night flight, at least with my limited experience. The Tiger is on the other side; I've flown it, but am not checked out in it for day nor night. Behind it is the Mooney, high performance plane which I've never piloted (been a 'safety pilot' while my instructor practiced his instrument flying once). And behind THAT are the two 152s. OK, guess I won't be flying the 152s, since I didn't feel like moving EVERY damn plane in the hangar and the 172 WAS in front, easy to get at. It's $8/hour more expensive than the 152s ($10/hour more expensive than the 150, but like I said, I didn't want to fly that at night), but has dual communication and navigation radios, more powerful engine, generally safer. OK, I'll use that. Of course, my flight plan was calculated with the 152 figures, the 172 flies faster, climbs quicker, and comsumes more fuel (also has bigger tanks).

So, I recalculate the things I need. Do the preflight inspection, it's airworthy. Go back inside and call up flight service and file my flight plan. After taking it, the briefer asks me if I actually had checked the weather and got a briefing (kind of in a tone of disbelief). I don't like the sound of that. I tell him yes, but ask him if he has current information, since mine was an hour out of date. He said that their radar wasn't that precise, but there was lake-effect snow just south of the lake. Syracuse (further south) was reporting pretty clear but he thought Fulton might be different. There's no tower or weather reporting facility there, so he said that it was clear up to that at least and if I wanted to, I could just give it a shot, and if I hit snow, I could turn around, since I was intending to just do a touch and go and return. I could also call the airport there and ask anyone on the ground to look outside. I thank him and tell him I'll try one of those methods.

I call Fulton, but no one's home. The FBO (Fixed Base Operator, the place that handles private planes) was closed. I pondered and finally decided that there were 2 reasons to fly. One: night experience. Two: cross-country time. If I couldn't land at an airport 50+ miles away, it wouldn't count as x-c time, so if I had to turn around, I'd be wasting a good bit of time and money (landing at Syracuse wouldn't count, since even if I had flown >50 miles, that airport is <50 away). I wanted the night flying, but if I wasn't sure about the x-c, I might as well keep it local and just do the local stuff and save my money.

So, I modify my (mental) plan. First, I need to get the plane up the ramp. We have a little 'tug' which looks like a cyclops' lawnmower/edger (a motor, one big wheel, handle bars and something to clamp it to a nose-gear) that helps pull the planes up the ramp (which IS a ramp, on an incline). Was a bitch to start. I'm pulling the cord (just like a lawnmower) and nothings happening. The plane is heavy, too much for me to drag uphill myself. There's some (ether?) spray that you spray into the air-intake that helps it start. Eventually that worked. Got it up (the plane to the top of the ramp, that is) and proceeded.

I first requested "closed traffic" to practice a night landing locally at Ithaca. That went pretty well. The winds were calm. So, as I was climbing out, I requested "a right turn out to Cortland." Tower complied. Cortland is really close (12 nautical miles), but does require mini-cross-country skills, like finding the airport and such. I didn't open the flight plan I filed, since I wasn't going to go to Fulton and more or less, this was a 'local' flight. I knew the course to fly and once I got established on it, pretty quickly I spotted the airport's beacon. Just where it should be. I got the weather report (there's a little robot with a synthesizer that broadcasts the conditions continuously), calm winds, clear sky, etc. I switch to the frequency to advise other planes and announce that I'm going to be entering the traffic patter, etc. etc. etc. No one else is around. Then my favorite part of night flying...pilot controlled lighting. At unattended airports, the lights are activated by keying the mic on a frequency a certain number of times within a few seconds. It's always neat to see an area of black come to life with lights flashing and such.

At this point, I should point out that there's the beacon, the city lights nearby, and the airport is dark. So I key the mic 7 times and watch as... nothing happens. OK...maybe it's key the mic 5 times. Nothing. Dark airport. Hmmm. Maybe it's an airport without lights. No...I've BEEN there before (with an instructor). Maybe the lights were out of service. I don't recall seeing anything about it, and if so, why would there be a beacon. Maybe it's 7 times. Still dark. At this point, I'm in the traffic pattern flying parallel to the runway. My eyes have adjusted and I can see the runway below. I realize that I'll need time to think and I'm not in a good position now, so I climb to 500-1000' above the traffic pattern altitude and overfly the runway and make a wide pattern. Give me some breathing and thinking room.

As I'm checking things, if FINALLY dawns on me that I've got FULTON'S FREQUENCY set on the radio, NOT Corland's. AAAaaaaarrrrgh!!!! Bonehead!!!! OK...time for that later. I switch to the proper frequency, turn back towards the airport and descend back to the pattern altitude and re-announce myself on the frequency (where I am, what I'm going to be doing). I key the mic 7 times and then FWWWWWOOOOOOOMMM!!!! like magic, the sea of black below me is transformed as two rows of lights bloom, with two other rows of lights connectioning with the other two long rows, forming a rectangle of dots around the runway. I key the mic 5 times and they dim a little. 3 more times and they drop to low intensity. 7 again and they're back to full power.

I do two stop-and-go landings there. (At night, you must come to a full stop, if you want the landings to count.) Did a short-field takeoff and then returned back to Ithaca. Picked up the Ithaca weather (no change) and paused a minute before contacting the tower, as I had time before I got to their airspace. I looked at the landscape below me with the lights of small towns like little lanterns against the dark below. The ground paralleled the sky, which was very clear and star-lit. Very quiet, very peaceful, and pretty safe. I'm pretty skittish about night-flying. Or at least very careful. And while this didn't count as cross-country, this is the first time I've flown solo to a different airport. It helped my confidence on that.

I called the tower, and was immediately cleared to land (like no further instructions, directions to travel, or anything). I was 5 miles out and it was 9:55pm, 5 minutes till the tower closed and the field switched to being unattended. It was obvious the controller didn't want to stay late.

I had spotted the beacon a while ago, and then saw the lights. Flew a right-hand pattern and landed. Uneventful. Tower tells me to taxi back to the ramp, and about 30 seconds later, I hear "The time now is 0259 Zulu, Ithaca Tower now concludes its operations. Wind calm, altimeter 30.13, runway 32 in use. No known traffic in the airspace or on the surface, except for a Cessna 172 taxiing back to the general aviation ramp. Goodnight." I expected to hear the Star Spangled Banner.

I taxied in, got the plane down the ramp, refueled and back in the hangar without the use of the tug.

It was a pleasant flight. Thought you might enjoy reading it. I think I'm going to add this text to my web page, since it is a first of sorts.


Written on Saturday, March 8th, 1997 by FNA