Starry, Starry Night

A major crossroads in the life of any student pilot is the first cross-country flight in a star-studded sky. The radio frequencies are quiet. The engine is noisy. It's different. It's ... well ... it's dark. AVweb's series on primary flight training by Tina Gonsalves continues, as we ride along with a brand-new student during her first few flight hours and through her Private Pilot checkride.


I have heard that flying at night can be something extraordinary, but I didn’t fully understand the experience until I did it for myself. Like most things beautiful, night flight has more inherent dangers and potential problems, but my goodness it is lovely. Last night was my introduction to flying at night, as I completed my required night cross-country flight from Ellington, Connecticut, up to Nashua, New Hampshire. It was a crystal-clear, sparkly-starred night with a magnificent moon hung up in the sky. A perfect night to fly. I have rarely seen stars shining so brightly. I suspect flying up there with them makes all the difference.

Getting Ready by Day

Daytime PreflightMy flight into the night started with some different preparation. I had more to take into consideration than before a normal VFR daytime flight, although with my instructor on board it was not necessary to make an assessment of my skills and limitations. For the fun of it, we thought about them anyway, just for practice. How am I feeling tonight? Am I tired? Did I have a tough day? Am I current to fly with passengers at night? There are many things to consider, many questions to answer. There will come a time when Johnny is not along with me and I will be Pilot In Command and this honest assessment will be necessary. The special skills of night flying are a use-it-or-lose-it kind of a skill and can only be acquired and maintained by frequent night flights. Routes, frequencies, weather, moon phase, airport information, terrain heights, FARs related to night flight and the night flight checklist were some of the many things that we considered. Did we have flashlights, pens, radio backup? Extra careful preflight is required at night, checking lights and being sure to carry a spare bulb. Just don’t try to change that bulb during the flight. It’s dangerous and will really mess up your hair.

As a precaution, I stopped by the airport earlier in the day to do a preflight in the daylight. I made sure to check and clean the windows, as clean windshields become even more significant at night. You do not want to mistake a bug on the windshield for another airplane, or more importantly mistake another airplane for a bug. Some things become more important at night, and an organized cockpit is another of them. Making sure that we had all of our tools handy and within reach takes on more importance when you realize it’s hard to fly the airplane and fumble in the dark for things. Believe me, grabbing the wrong thing can be embarrassing if not downright dangerous when flying with a member of the opposite sex to whom you are not married.

Another important consideration before embarking on a night flight is avoiding bright lights prior to flying. It is necessary to accustom your eyes to the darkness before flight. Any bright light effectively reduces your night vision. The human eyes do not perform as well at night making them poor judges when looking to avoid hard objects. Most night accidents occur on "dark night" flights, so it is imperative to remember that, even more than during daytime, every night takeoff decision we make holds consequences. Every night landing is an act of faith.

Planning for Darkness

In the pre-flight planning phase, it is important to choose checkpoints for night visibility. Major highways become ribbons of light, while lakes and ponds are simply dark spots on the earth’s surface. Or are they fields? It is difficult to tell from the sky at night. Remember this when thinking about emergency landing spots. Beyond pondering emergencies, it is infinitely important that obstructions are noted, and ground routes/terrain studied carefully. When choosing your destination, remember that VASI or PAPI runways help you to avoid night landing illusions, delusions, and contusions. When I called for my pre-flight weather briefing, I paid special attention to weather notes on temperature/dew point spread. If they’re close together, there is a strong possibility of fog and haze, two things not conducive to a nice VFR night flight. At night you can’t see weather unless there is a moon. You would not want to wander into nighttime instrument weather conditions if you were a VFR-only pilot. That would be bad.

When working my flight plan, I understood that, more than during the daytime, altitude is your friend at night. When planning, I used higher than normal altitude for terrain clearance, which helped me from meeting up with objects that go bump in the night, like hills and unlit towers.

There are lots and lots of things that need to be considered in addition to the usual pre-flight ponderings. John advised that I entertain the possibility, and plan a "what if" should the electronics in the airplane fail. No lights, no radios, no navigation. What will your airplane look like in the dark with no lights? "Well, I guess it wouldn’t look like much of anything." "That’s right" he said, "you’ll be a stealth aircraft. You can see others but they cannot see you, so be prepared to fly with that in mind." We then reviewed no radio squawk codes and tower light gun procedures. And lest we forget ground school, the FARs say VFR night flight fuel requirements are different from daytime. You must have a minimum of 45 minutes of fuel remaining on board after reaching your destination airport, so plan for that because FBOs can be closed for the evening.

Lights-Out Takeoff

With the review done, it was time to get high. For this flight, John & I used the Cessna 172 instead of my usual 152. It was my first time flying that tank. (Ed:  Everything’s relative.) And since this airplane came with a back seat, I filled it. We brought our pal Mike along for the ride. Since I wasn’t PIC it was okay to bring a passenger. Before taking off we did our normal run-up of the engine. While doing so, John pointed out that run-up creep is more likely to go undetected because the visual cues out the window are diminished at night. It was necessary to set the parking brake and pay particular attention to holding still.

After the run-up, we taxied to the active runway and prepared to depart. A check of all the systems prior to rolling and we were off. I found that taking off into the dark was quite different than daytime departures. It gave me an illusion that caused me to not feel entirely comfortable. It was dark out and the picture outside the window wasn’t familiar to me. Actually, there was no picture outside the window. As we climbed out into the dark sky, John explained that night takeoffs should be made on instruments until altitude is sufficient to allow for any momentary disorientation that may occur using visual reference. "Trust your instruments," he admonished.

Underway by Moonlight

Full MoonAt altitude, that airplane flew pretty much the same as my 152 except that it is a sky barge. It also has a more powerful engine, one that I was not used to hearing. John had to remind me to "add power." "Doesn’t it sound weak?" he’d ask. Compared to what, my 152? It sure sounded plenty strong to these ears. Speaking of sounds, I was surprised by the lack of voices in the air at night. The night flight radio chatter of controllers and pilots was quite minimal. Perhaps we were the only souls transitioning here to there in the starry, black velvet sky. One of the few who marked up the night sky with moving, flashing stars that evening. Gosh, night flying really makes me wax poetic.

In addition to the sound difference, the 172 is also quite a heavy plane compared to the one I am used to flying. Once settled in the sky it was like flying a sofa, it felt very solid. But my, it was a bit heavy. Have I mentioned that before? Tina graduates to the "big iron." I’m still not leaving my lovely 152 though. She’s a terrific little airplane. I am convinced that airplanes have personalities and I sure like the persona that the 152 that I normally fly has displayed. She gives me lots of little bits of trouble, but nothing awful. Little reminders that flying takes lots of respect and isn’t something to be taken lightly. For instance, one time John and I were coming in for a landing at Ellington and she had a little surprise for us. After we touched down and began rolling out on the runway, the propeller just stopped turning. I looked at John and asked, "Is it supposed to do that?" His scramble to restart the engine told me that, no, that wasn’t supposed to do that. No luck on the restart so a couple other pilots came out to push us off the active runway. Seems there was a crack in the muffler shroud and the mixture became too rich and it choked out the engine, or some other technical airplane engine mumbo-jumbo that I didn’t understand at the time. So my engine quit. Thankfully she just decided to do it on the runway. Nice, isn’t she? So, as strange as it may sound to non-aviators, it feels as if I climb inside my airplane and just feel happy and safe. Protected, kind of. I’ve heard people talk about "strapping on the airplane" and taking it up. I don’t feel that. To me it feels more like I climb inside and become one with my airplane. See, again night flying is bringing out the poet in me.

But flying the 172 wasn’t half-bad either. It was kind of nice to have a "fancy" nav/com stack. We had DME, two radios, two VOR receivers, the works. (Hey, I’m easily impressed, okay?) As for extras, John brought along his GPS but kept it hidden from me. No cheating and using GPS to find the airport for this student pilot. Also in his bag of goodies was a handheld transceiver, just in case. And between the three of us we also had about 57 flashlights, I think. At least that many, all of different sizes and shapes. Well, maybe it just seemed that we had that much. Preparation for night flight must be more intensive and comprehensive and we accomplished that.

Navigating by the Stars

Starry Starry NightAfter takeoff we flew to the northeast and I immediately saw Springfield, Mass., off to the left. Look ahead and Worcester, Mass., lay ahead like a star cluster centered upon the earth. Put that where it needed to be in the picture out of my window and we continued on. Airports were a piece of cake to find with their flashing beacons and runway lights. A little bit later, Mount Wachusett was off to my left. Mount Wachusett is a local ski area that offers night skiing. A lit-up mountainside makes a very distinct and unique visual landmark at night. And yes, I took that into consideration when flight planning. Not being as familiar with the area as I was, John didn’t realize the significance of that landmark when I chose it. So, the mountain belonged just off to my left and there it was.

Though I used the VORs to check my position as a backup, night flying, at least this night’s flying, was simple. Dead reckoning and pilotage was so much easier for me at night than during the day. All I needed to do was look for the big bright cities and I knew where I was. Although John did warn me about "convincing myself of something I knew when I didn’t really know it" and to be careful of that possible delusion up there. Which reminds me of another solo cross-country where I saw the city of Springfield, Mass., ahead of me, certain of my location. As I flew closer I realized that it was actually Hartford I was aimed at and not Springfield. The things we convince ourselves of. But this night I knew exactly where I was. Really I did.

The city of Fitchburg should be right beneath us, and low and behold there it is. With the flashing beacon at Fitchburg airport confirming our position, I knew there is no mistake there. From Fitchburg I could see Nashua, and from studying the sectional chart, I knew the airport at Nashua was on the Northwest corner of town so, that’s where I looked for the beacon. What do you know, it was exactly where it should be. Amazing how that works.

Night Landings

The tower at Nashua was closed for the evening so having noted previously that the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) and the tower frequency were the same, we just announced our intentions as we always do at any non-towered field. "Nashua traffic, Cessna 7400G on the 45 entry to the left downwind runway 14, Nashua."

On turning final, I noticed that Nashua had disco lights at the approach end of the runway. Must have been one heck of a party they were having too, nothing like I have ever seen before. The lights are a flashing and a blinking. Beyond that, the lights on the runway had me thinking I was landing in Times Square. This is a far cry from the candles by the side of the runway back at home. We’re less flashy at 7B9. More subtle and subdued. Understated, you might say.

The approach was a trip and a half. It felt as if I was trying to swim with a brick tied to my ankles, very heavy. I guess it’s how it’s supposed to feel. I have no clue. The only experience I had flying that airplane was that flight. I just knew it was HEAVY. As I’m about to touch down, I hear the all too familiar refrain in the background, "Hold back, hold back," and all I’m thinking is, "My, this thing is HEAVY," especially when landing and getting flaps in. Lucky for me, I work out and was able to muscle that airplane to the ground, holding back and touching it down pretty well if I do say so myself. And I do. Because John says I did pretty well. And I listen to John always. I do think though that making me wash his Jeep the next day was an abuse of CFI-power, wouldn’t you agree? Perhaps I shouldn’t always listen to Johnny.

So my first time landing that airplane was fun. First time landing at night was more fun. First time landing in a strange airplane, at a strange airport at night was the most fun of all. Certainly having Johnny in the right seat made it all right. I suppose that’s why they have you train with an instructor before going it alone. It’s not just so that you can spend MORE money on flying. It is all about experience and learning.

Heading Home

NightAt Nashua, we didn’t even shut down the airplane. We simply cleaned it up and prepared to depart back home to Ellington once again. On the journey back home, Johnny was playing CFII. Practicing his instrument training techniques on me. He told me that night is exactly when you’re most likely to blunder into zero visibility and it’s also a very good time to give hood instruction, because the shadows aren’t there to give you clues like they might in the daytime. It’s much more realistic. So I even earned a little hood time that night as well.

The trip back home was almost as simple as the trip up to Nashua. With one exception, however. Finding my home airport. It was rather NASTY to find, actually. We could sure use those disco lights here at Ellington too. As we got closer and closer John and Mike played "tease the student." They knew it would take me ages to pick the runway out of the maze of house lights, streetlights and other assorted ground clutter so they taunted me with, "I see it, do you see it? Why yes, Michael…there it is, right there. How could anyone ever miss it." Truly, during my training the only time I’ve found it easy to spot this runway is when there was snow on the ground. There are not many driveways around here 1800 feet long and perfectly straight and plowed.

Finally I see what they saw and set up for a landing. On goes the landing light to help me see what there is to see down there. Of course, if I didn’t like it I can always turn the light off again. Even in the dark, home is home and I touch down for a very nice landing, completing my night cross-country requirements.

So now, with that crossed off and two night landings completed, I only have eight more night landings, test prep, and it’s party time at my house. I hope!

Editor’s Note:

Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: