Night Flying, Winter Flying

I love night flying. I hate winter flying. Last night, I did both at once.

The mission: Deliver two pilots to Batavia so that they could pick up two of our planes that had been serviced and were ready to return.

The good part: The only plane available for the trip was the club’s Lance. I finished checking out in the Lance on the first of the month, and I flew it on the weekend without an instructor nagging at me, which went pretty well except I forgot to turn off the boost pump at altitude (a very minor thing to forget). Nobody else has flown the Lance so far all through March, so I’m the only one keeping it happy.

The complications:

  • One of the pilots can’t make it until 6:00, and the other can’t make it until 6:30.
  • Sundown is 6:30 pm, and I’m not night current.
  • It’s cold enough that the engine should be pre-heated.
  • The plane needs to be shoveled out.

All this means that if I want to act as Pilot in Command for the flight out, I have to have the plane ready to go when Lenny arrives at 6:30, preheated and shovelled, so that I’ll get to Batavia before “one hour after sunset”, which is when you need to be night current to carry passengers. I didn’t particularly want to be a passenger on the way out, mostly because it meant that I’d probably have to fly one of the other planes home, rather than flying the Lance back.

So I got to the airport at 5:45, toting my Subway “Atkins friendly” wraps for my dinner. I got the wing and cabin covers off by the time the first pilot, Don, arrived right on 6:00. He and I worked on the shovelling and the pre-heating and pre-flighting the aircraft. And we were ready so that as soon as Lenny walked around the corner of the hangar dead on 6:30, I called Clearance while Don and he put the pre-heater away.

That, by the way, is one reason why I hate winter flying. Wing covers, cabin covers, pre-heating, and doing your pre-flight in the freezing cold are not fun. The other reason will be explained later.

Don jumped in the back seat for some reason – earlier he’d said he wanted to ride up front so he could see everything because he’s planning to check out in the Lance later. Lenny jumped in the front, and I started up and went.

So far every time I’ve flown the Lance, I mentally rehearse in my head about a hundred times “Don’t forget to put the gear up and pull back the prop a touch after take-off”. On one of the training flights I forgot and got to pattern altitude (slowly) before Lenny reminded me. Ooops. This time I didn’t forget, and it was a pretty uneventful flight out. While trying to spot the airport I clicked the mike seven times to turn on the runway lights, and got more than I wanted – the ILS approach lights (MASLR?) turned on, and those are designed to be bright enough to be seen through poor visibility so they are EXTREMELY bright on clear night. (Sorry, “twilight” – it’s not officially night until one hour after official sundown, and this was about half an hour after sundown.) The AWOS (Automatic Weather Observation Station) at Batavia first said the winds were favouring runway 10, but then immediately said “winds calm”. Hey, I’m as much of a cheater as the next guy, so I took that as “permission” to do a straight in on runway 28, which would be easier. I quickly tuned the radio away from the AWOS so I wouldn’t hear any contradictory wind information.

It’s always nice to make a nice smooth landing, but it’s especially nice when the guy who checked you out in the plane is sitting in the right seat.

Lenny didn’t hang around long – he was taking the Dakota back, and it had just been there for some electrical interference in the radios. He took off and left while Don and I were doing a thorough pre-flight on the Archer. The Archer had been there for an annual inspection, and since the mechanics take lots of stuff apart it’s a good idea to do a real thorough pre-flight after an annual. There have been cases of people crashing because the mechanics screwed up the control rigging so you turn the wheel to the right and it banks left, or push forward and it goes up instead of down. We also checked in the engine compartment to make sure nothing was visibly unsecured or missing. I also hung around outside while Don started up to look for smoke or oil pouring out of the nose bowl. Everything looked ok.

All this pre-flighting had the desired effect, it was now after the time when landings officially count towards night currency, so while I was waiting for Don to finish up, I went out and did two of my three required night landings to get current. The third one would be back in Rochester. Don did the same thing – which isn’t a bad idea after an annual to make sure everything still works after the plane warms up a bit while you’re in the vicinity of the airport. The windsock was hanging limply, but was favouring runway 10, which would launch me directly towards Rochester, so I chose to use runway 10. My first take-off, I forgot to raise the gear until I got to the pattern altitude – DAMN. Two not very good landings later, I was done there.

Seeing that Don wasn’t having any problems, I headed off back to Rochester. It was a beautiful night – clear, calm, good visibility. The radios were not busy, and the controllers accomodating. And you can see other airplanes hundreds of miles away because of their flashing lights. Unfortunately no big full moon to make it perfect. Other than a little difficulty finding the airports, this is why night flying is great.

15 miles from Rochester, I got passed over to the tower, who immediately cleared me to land on runway 7. Ok, that’s a sure sign of a slow night. I was wracking my brain trying to remember whether runway 7 was north or south of the airport beacon. I could see the beacon, I could see the terminal buildings and where runway 10-28 crosses runway 4-22. But I couldn’t see runway 7. I asked the controller if he could “brighten up 7”, and he said “I think I can do that”, and he did. Ah, there it is!

Another half decent landing, but not as good as the one I’d done with the passengers on board. But on an upsloping runway in the dark, I’ll take it. I landed on the mains first, and didn’t slam the nose gear down, didn’t brake too hard, and got slow enough before turning off so I didn’t put too much side load on the gear, so all the important bases were covered.

Now comes the second hateful part of winter flying – putting the plane way. Out in the cold, push the plane back, put chains on, put the wing covers back on, put the cabin cover back on – getting a couple of wet knees from kneeling in the snow along the way. By this time, Don has arrived. Now there is a large wind-driven snow drift at the designated tie down for the Archer he’s flying, and I don’t relish any more shovelling on a cold night, especially not when it’s going to be melting soon. The tie down spot for the Dakota (which isn’t being used by the Dakota, since it’s living in the hangar while the paint is new) is covered by snow, but the snow is even and not too deep. We decided to just horse it into the Dakota spot. It took three tries, but we eventually got it in far enough to get the tie-down chains attached. I let Don handle the wing and cabin covers for the Archer, and headed on in.

With all this hard pushing and kneeling in the snow, it’s not surprising that I got home with sore knees and sore back muscles. But the night flying plusses outweighed the winter flying minusses, so I feel good about it.

One thought on “Night Flying, Winter Flying”

  1. One of the best things about night flying is the vastly reduced chance of midair collisions. Not only are half the GA pilots askeert of night flying, but those that are have blinkenlights all over and are real easy to see.

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