Tag Archives: night flying

Are we there yet?

Not including a few solo jaunts off to Capital City airport, I have 5 true Cross Country flights.

  1. A dual cross country from Carlisle to Martinsburg, VA.  My first so called navigational experience.
  2. A dual cross country from Carlisle to Reading, PA.  My night cross country.
  3. A solo cross country from Carlisle to Williamsport, PA.  My first 50NM+ solo cross country.
  4. A solo cross country from Carlisle to University Park, PA.  A “time builder” 50NM+ solo cross country.
  5. A solo cross country from Carlisle to University Park, PA, to Lancaster, PA,.  My long cross country.

In preparation for the dual cross countries, I had ground school coursework on flight planning as well as a 2 hour 1:1 session with my CFI. 1 hour of good instruction. 1 hour of me just running my mouth about everything else.

During these sessions the focus is on good route planning. Considerations are for terrain, airspace, navigational aids (e.g. VOR’s, prominent landmarks), backup airports, P-40!, winds, weather, and available runways.

Even though I was strictly VFR, I always tried to fly with reference to at least one radio NavAid. In that way, even if I had an issue with finding an expected visual reference, I had a “connection” to a known spot and could at least get to it and get reset. Of course, there was always the GPS but as my CFI would say…”ya never can trust those things…” Or at least the brightness knob which could somehow get turned to dim and stay there during the flight.

8-12 miles max between visual checkpoints.  8 miles was my minimum visibility for flight so, theoretically, I should always be able to “see” the next point. And, that seemed to be a good distance for managing checkpoint timings, calculating groundspeed, and adjusting ETA.

I also learned to fill out a navigation log with everything but the winds and photocopy it. This was a HUGE time saver. That way, on the day of the flight you just need to fill in the up to date wind information and calculate your headings, GS, fuel burn, and ETA . Well, that part is simple . The huge time saver comes when that flight you just filled out gets weathered out and you have to go through the same process 9 more times until the weather cooperates!

So with navigation log in hand, I’m off on the dual cross country flights. Navigationally, the first one was a bit of a disaster. I was task saturated from just flying and communicating. Trying to manage a precise location on a poorly folded sectional map with a penciled in set of checkpoints, while also reading numbers in the handwriting script the quality of which a 2nd grader would scoff at is next to impossible while also trying to hold a heading and altitude in an aircraft traversing the ground at 106 knots (or at least that was what was originally calculated!)

So, lessons learned:

  1. Binder clips are your friend. Get that sectional chart folded exactly how you want it before the flight.  Make sure it will fit on your kneeboard properly and then clip that thing in place. 3 clips minimum.
  2. While that thing is on your kneeboard, you won’t be able to see your navigation log (2 kneeboards???) So, when it comes time to update a timing, you’re out of space. Not easy to shuffle paperwork in a 172. It’s a bit goofy but along with binder clips, Post It notes can be your friend. Put everything you can on that sectional to minimize the back and forth.
  3. A C-172 has an analog clock in it.  Now, that’s nice and “classic” but it sucks for leg timing. A digital wristwatch is helpful but it would probably be better to have a timer within easy reach.
  4. You’re paying your CFI…as part of the lesson, feel free to use them as a storage facility for a reasonable amount of this material. Reasonable must be stressed though lest they decide to test you out on distractions by dropping a chart at your feet and then pulling the engine while you go reaching for it.

Handwriting…I’ve got a terminal case of bad handwriting.  The only thing for that is technology. Printed flight plans from iflightplanner.com or on the iPad with ForeFlight are MUCH more readable and arguably in my case safer.

In preparation for my solo cross country, I had to cover lost procedures and diversions. I knew I was going to get overloaded on that one as well but I definitely tried to prepare for everything. While I didn’t get “lost”, I was NOT happy with my ability to get myself to the “found” place including the calculation of time / distance.

For diversions, on a sectional chart, from a known position, it is not hard to quickly estimate a course and distance with a pocket ruler.

Get a general idea of the course. Measure the distance right off the scale.  Then, without changing the angle of the ruler, move it towards the compass rose of a VOR.  You can estimate your magnetic heading from there.

So, you’ve got a course, and a distance. HOW LONG UNTIL YOU GET THERE?

And that’s where I would begin the mental lock up. If you’ve got the GPS on you’ve got a groundspeed but we all know how unreliable at least mine is. So, you’ve hopefully been taking your leg times between checkpoints and calculating your groundspeed, right? RIGHT?

I already said I barely had room for the sectional chart and navigation log.  Now I need to manage either of these things as well?

Even if I could find a place for it…not going to be able to use it efficiently.

Slightly better but still…BULKY.

There are some rule of thumb estimates, but I like to be a little more precise than that. While I haven’t used it yet, I’ve come up with what I hope will be a useful tool.


Fits right on the kneeboard. Won’t always have the exact information but should have enough to make a PTS level estimate.

Confession: On my Williamsport trip I used the sectional chart and the navigation log as faithfully as possible. I took some leg times, tried to calculate my groundspeed and updated my ETA. But, of course, the GPS was working fine, I was following a major river the whole way, AND I had ForeFlight running on the iPad with the exact same flight plan loaded….which, incidentally was automatically calculating my leg times, my groundspeed and updating my ETA…which allowed me to keep my eyes outside.

On my subsequent trips, the iPad got attached to the yoke via my Christmas gift and, while there was always the paper and GPS backup, it became my primary inside navigation tool (I still did update the paperlog after each leg with the new groundspeed and ETA!). Is that a bad thing? I think you should always have a backup AND be able to do it the old fashioned way but realistically, if technology is there to help you fly and keep your eyes in the sky, why wouldn’t you take advantage of it?

On a checkride, I’m pretty sure the only thing I’ll be able to use is the charts and timer so I’ve got some practice ahead of me.  I’m definitely up for the challenge but also happy I took some of the time to work out a good balance between straight up pilotage and using all available resources to ensure a good outcome for the flight.



Night Requirements COMPLETE!

3rd time’s the charm right? In this case, thankfully yes.  The morning skies were crystal clear, made brighter by the fact that daylight savings time is now over.  Winds were calm to variable with the promise and smell of winter.  It was cold outside but cold is just fine.

My CFI had a fully loaded schedule for the day but our discussion during the Saturday lesson (Short Field / Soft Field…a post for another time) raised hope that she “might” be available for the dual night on Monday.  I booked the plane but not the CFI.

The good weather Monday morning gave way to a high overcast but still perfectly good flying weather.  Around 2pm I sent the hopeful text to see if the flight was still on.  30 minute delay but YES!  This would give me time to do the preflight, fuel the plane, and, most importantly get myself organized first for flying the plane but also for the normal barrage of queries, quizzes, interrogations, and distractions offered by my CFI during these flights. Now that I know this is the “norm” I am prepared.

Preflight was routine with the two happy exceptions that the cover was already off and the prior pilot had fully fueled.  That hadn’t happened for at least the last 8 flights. So, a little more time to try out some different cockpit organization methods.

For night cross country flight you are obviously juggling an extra variable in that you can’t see everything directly inside the cockpit.  So, the red flashlight comes in very handy.  But…where to put it in relation to the kneeboard, prefolded / highlighted sectional chart? I was originally going to try 2 kneeboards (I bought one and a colleague gave me an extra) but that seemed like overkill. The kneeboard was the primary writing surface and the place to store the flight plan, runway information, and checklist. I just kept the sectional off to the left side for the flight.  This method seemed to work well.  Watch with easy to use, lighted stop watch for timing segments was also a very good piece of equipment to have as the analog clock in the dashboard is, to me, altogether useless.

This time, I also pre-marked my sectional with the checkpoints so I didn’t have to keep flipping back and forth from the flight plan.

My cheat sheet

My cheat sheet

Once I got my weather briefing / winds aloft, I added the segment times to the post it notes.  That, turned out to be the game changer.  Side note though…Orange highlighter on a sectional looks great in the day time.  At night, under a red flashlight…well, it’s the same as the analog clock…altogether useless!

Departure review: Route was fine.  I was told I would do all the radio calls except for one she would do as we got to Reading.  I was ready for this and had even rehearsed a few of them in advance.  Though light, the winds were out of the East so I was planning for a 10 departure from Calisle and a 13 arrival into Reading.

We departed Carlisle in to the night sky direct to Harrisburg VOR.  I had the VOR tuned and the GPS flight plan loaded but focused on flying the plane, watching for my visuals, and checking the times.  Great practice and I am sure something I will have to demonstrate going forward since, with my CFI, things always seem to “break” while flying.

Flight following was all set up and with Harrisburg VOR being my only non visual checkpoint made, I altered course for Reading.

The clouds were still above us but visibility was outstanding.  Aside from being able to see all my landmarks, it also led to a few moments of quiet in the cockpit as we both just happily looked around.

Jay Rossignol & Arnold Offner - ILS 13 Approach - KMDT

Jay Rossignol & Arnold Offner – ILS 13 Aproach – KMDT

We passed north of the city but it’s quite a landmark.  Normally we look for lights at night but the river (one of my checkpoints) is equally good for its distinct lack of lights.

Each checkpoint came in within a minute of plan which was good given the variable winds. We noted a few interesting lights, not indicated on the sectional.

Hershey Park at Night!

Hershey Park at Night!

No, we weren’t that close or that low to Hershey but I wanted to give an idea of just how the scene could create an interesting light combination from 10 miles away.

We picked up the Reading ATIS and I was wrong, 31 was in use.  So, it would be a standard left downwind entry.  We were both looking for the beacon and once located began a standard, smooth descent from 3,500 to 1,400.

So, the beacon is often hard to locate. There is terrain off the approach end of 31 with, what turned out to be a very distinctive feature.

View FROM the feature

View FROM the feature

Photo Credit

The Feature

We agreed that is WAY better than a beacon.

Landing at Reading was extremely smooth. Of course, as I was congratulating myself, the full taxi instructions came through (this was that one radio call my CFI had made) and I missed most of it.  I got the turn off of the active which was the most important and then called back for the rest.  I was a bit embarrassed but was told I did the right thing.

Taxied back to 31 and took a few minutes to reconfigure airplane and paperwork for the return. For fun, I planned a different route back.  This would be Southwest then West crossing directly over Lancaster airport and then off to Carlisle.

Again, the first leg was to a VOR.  Got to fly an actual airway, be quizzed and properly responded that I was not going to bust Class D and even get a scenic overflight of Three Mile Island.  Again. ALL very good landmarks.

Flight back had 3 “learning” experiences.

1) On departure from Reading I turned onto the runway as cleared but, not realizing the width of the runway I lined up on the left side.  Not a big deal, more of a laugh than anything else. Recentered myself and took off.  That wasn’t the learning experience. When I departed and altered course towards Lancaster my CFI asked what the planned heading was.  I looked at my flight log and gave her the number I read.  I didn’t question what I said before I said it but she certainly did afterwards.  I read the wrong number and, had I flown it I would have ended up in Philly…well, pointed that way but I would have hit the mountain first! Fortunately I was flying the plane based on the initial GPS line and not to the heading I said. I definitely have to get all that information straight in advance.  Basically, I had the flight plan folded a little differently than the previous one and I just looked at the wrong column. Like I said, it’s different in the dark.

2) I was really good at altitude control…except for 2 times during the flight where I went up (never down) 150′. During both of those times I was either working a radio or adjusting the GPS. As I would reach for those instruments with my right hand, my left hand remained on the yoke.  Since the seats essentially suck and wobble a little, my left hand also became a bit of a brace…meaning…I pulled back ever so slightly for support.  Result….150′ of altitude, 50′ of which are outside the PTS.  So, I got that one figured out.

3) Landing at Carlisle was not great.  Probably tried to do the pattern too tight and came in high.  I called my own go around.  Next one was a great pattern but a sloppy landing. Keep flying until the plane is off and tied down.

A long day but a great lesson!

And with that, the night requirements are complete.  I got my solo endorsement renewed and we’re moving on to Diversions and Lost Procedures.

With those done, it will be on, finally, to the solo x-country.  Here’s to fair skies and zero business trips!


Loop and Lands

The midday sun slowly peeking through the cloudy morning haze provided a glimmer of hope that the dual night cross country flight would occur. With the forecast originally being for full overcast, to see the yellow rays of the sun and even some blue skies…get the flight plan ready!

Arriving home from work I said my hellos to everyone and then quickly went to the office to get everything in order. Flight plans had been prefilled with everything except the winds.  Experience had taught me to make photocopies of the plans up to that point just in case they ever needed to be redone. Weather briefing seemed fine with light and variable winds along the route of flight and 6 miles of visibility (warning 1). Airmet Sierra just north and west of our position which did not currently impact our route of flight (warning 2). Only oddity during the call was that the briefer knew my name and aircraft before I told him???

I decided to ask about that and he said I had a profile online linked to my phone number.  Hmm.  I thought it might have been because I had done a version of the flight plan on a flight planning website (although I did not file it). Turns out it was because I had created an account on the Lockheed Martin website with a plane profile which they could now use.  So, creepy but useful??

Driving to the airport, the air was a bit heavy.  The sun warmed land coupled with a now cloudless sky was eagerly giving back its heat into the sunset (warning 3).  My instructor came out during preflight and we talked through some options.  We were worried about fog / haze but decided we would “take a look”.

As typical, I had to fuel the plane up. After nearly 3 weeks away, things were moving rather slowly although not unfamiliar.  In the run up area we pulled in the Capital City ATIS. My CFI asked if there was anything in there that concerned me.  Wanting to say No…Let’s Fly! was of course the desire but I definitely heard it. Temp / dew point spread was less than 2 and we knew it was cooling off rapidly(final warning). It was going to get soupy.

It’s like a Merry go Round

So, still flying (phew) but into backup plan 1.  Instead of cross country we would do night take offs and landings. I need 10 total.  Have one from the previous flight and will get 2 if/when the cross country occurs so on the menu tonight…7 landings.

On the first night flight the winds were from the East so instead of 28 we departed and landed on 10.  I had never landed on 10 so it was ALL new.  I had no references at all and that probably helped.  That landing was pretty good.

Tonight we would be on 28 which I’ve landed on countless times. Lots of references, lots of familiarity…in the day time…when you can SEE! That turns out to be a big liability at night.

N94 only has 1 light setting.  So, with 3 clicks of the mic, the aeronautical version of the clapper does its job and the runway goes aglow. Very quaint.  Not much to look at.

As we take off, everything is routine.  On the climb I look behind to spot the runway and, while it’s only lights, I can clearly see that I am on the centerline. Turn base, reach pattern altitude, turn downwind…hmm, was that too early? Can see the runway but not yet judging distance.  Seems closer…of course, I don’t have my little rock quarry as a guide.  It’s there but as dark as a hole in the ground! Answer…yes, I am a little too close.  I make a little correction to create some distance and commence the descent.  Turning base…the airplane is stabilized but I am all kinds of disoriented.  Basically…I lost the runway. Wasn’t sure at that point what I was looking for.  I eventually spotted the runway threshold lights (along with a set of night landmarks) but by that point the rest of the descent was all out of whack.  I called the go around early.

Then, during that portion of the flight I noticed I couldn’t hear anything in the headset.  Radio went dead? We were both puzzled. She flies while I tinker. Nope.  I fly while she tries a few things.  When the intercom isn’t working you truly realize how hard it is to hear another person in an airplane.  Final cause??? Looks like I knocked the volume control when re-trimming for the go around.  Stupid error but a good one to make in training because it’s going to happen again.

On the plus side, while she was flying she set up the downwind leg and the spacing was much better.  I still had a little issue finding the threshold on base leg but plenty of time to get things stable.

7 landings in all.  The first two were decent but rusty.  3-4 I had nearly nailed until I totally didn’t.  Great patience rounding out and holding the flare until I jerked ever so slightly on the control and whoosh! Balloon time. And of course those typically end with a bit of a jolt. And they did.  We discussed approach speed of 65-70 and she said to try 60, especially with the 30 degrees of flap.  I have decent speed control on approach so I guess there’s no longer a concern and making a slower approach.

Much softer landing as I had less energy to bleed off. That’s now in the book of tricks.

And then, of course, so I wouldn’t be complacent, landings 6 & 7 would be without a landing light. A TOMATO FLAMES + FLAPS is a mnemonic most student pilots will encounter during their training and one I got into during the trip to Taiwan.  It’s a way to remember required equipment during VFR flight (A TOMATO FLAMES) and VFR at night (FLAPS). While I wasn’t going to turn down the maneuver I questioned my CFI about landing lights being required equipment (the L in FLAPS).  She said they were not and asked me what the heck the A TOMATO FLAMES thing was. So, a discussion ensued.  I recited everything in the mnemonic (good on me for remembering it…at least I learned something during the business trip). She said that all the other items were required but not Landing lights.

“And besides, the landing light could blow out during the flight so you’ll need to learn how to make the landing.” Not one to turn down the opportunity, I said “Well, sure, the engine could blow out as well but of course, that’s required equipment!”.  At least it got a laugh but I don’t think one is supposed to joke about those things…at least not while airborne.  So we had a bet to be settled later.

No landing light….no problem.  In fact, they were 2 of the best landings of the night.  Can’t explain why…not going to question it, just going to smile because the lesson ended on 2 good landings.

Of course on the wager…I was wrong.

I pulled up my A TOMATO FLAMES reference and did my victory dance. She pulled out the REGS (damn those things) and showed me that Landing Lights were required…..when the plane is FOR HIRE.

<Lawyer Mode On>

“Well, I’m renting this plane…and I’m hiring you to teach me how to fly it….” So…landing lights are required.

Nice try…but no dice..

<Lawyer Mode Off>

Somebody owes somebody cookies.

Somebody owes somebody cookies.







Soft field / Short Field work this weekend.

Dual night….well, there’s a plan to do it next week.

We’ll see…

Holding Pattern

As typical, there’s the plan, there’s the back up plan, there’s the backup, backup plan, and then there’s reality.

The plan was to do long night dual cross country. N94-KRDG. I had it scheduled a week out and had put together what I thought was a pretty decent navigation log for it.  A little more difficult finding a lot of suitable visual landmarks at night but I was satisfied with the routing I made and could justify it in terms of risk management and proper ADM.

Weather forecasts were initially quite favorable but turned progressively worse against me as the day approached. Winds from the East, no problem, slight chance of rain was ok, but clouds coming in.  While hopeful for a positive change, I laid in backup plan 1.  If the ceilings were only marginal for VFR out to Reading, I negotiated down to still doing a dual night, staying in Class G in the pattern and getting at least 7 of the night landings done.  That was agreed.

Clouds continued to build and while the ceilings were still ok, that persistent rain began to fall. Foolishly hopeful, I figured I would wait till the last minute before calling it.  No need. My CFI sent the No Fly text.

Enter backup to the backup plan.  Weather on Friday was supposed to be clear. Since I still had my solo privileges I scheduled a solo flight to the practice area. I still have a healthy lists of maneuvers I’d like to nail to the PTS so it would be time well spent.

As forecast, Friday was clear…but of course, after a low pressure system leaves the area it has a tendency to get windy as the new high pressure comes in chasing after the low. And it delivered.  28019G25.  No Fly.

And I had a plan!

Well, time ran out and duty called.

Business trip to Asia.

Letting the professionals do the job again…

Of course, I rescheduled the dual night in advance of the trip and eagerly watching the weather once again.  From recent experience anything over a .002% chance of rain or wind and I’m sitting on the ground again. Hoping I am wrong there.

While in Asia the weather on the ground was pretty typical for the season.  In the air, it was a different story. Out here we have hurricanes. There….SUPER TYPHOONS! That just sounds so much worse.

Super Typhoon Lekima

It never threatened Taipei directly but our flight back to LAX was over it. Wish it was daylight during the flight. Settled for a lot of lateral turbulence.

During the trip, my mind needs to keep busy.  With the flight planning done, what to do?

Light Reading

I’m still a ways off in terms of taking the checkride but, after a few reads through this, I am still a ways off in terms of being able to pass the oral exam as well.  So, the timing was good and hopefully effort well spent.

Tomorrow’s the Dual Night. We’ll see how it goes.


Hoping for great weather all along the East Coast.

Caitlin….good luck on your checkride!


Dual Night – First Flight

2013-10-09 18.49.42


Really don’t need to say much more (although I always do). With that being my first view of the night sky, how could any of this be bad?

And it wasn’t.  Night flight is a little daunting at first but it is definitely a different world up there.  I’ve been on a few night Cessna flights as “co-pilot” and, while definitely visually impressive, with no formal responsibilities, I didn’t really appreciate it.

No stars that night but a beautiful pastel sunset, a crescent moon playing peek a boo through the cloud layer, visibility literally as far as the eye could see, and smooth, cool air. Tranquility.

But of course, this is a lesson so there is work to do.

Pre-flight had 2 oddities.  One of the flaps made a small clank on its first 10 degrees.  The mechanism was secure and the rest of travel was smooth.  Made note of it in the squawk sheet but nothing to ground the aircraft over. 2nd item was a single distinct backfire on startup. Only odd since I had never heard it before from this plane. It occurred again after the refuel so my CFI was there for that one.  Again, odd, but since the engine was running very smoothly, nothing to ground the plane over.

Tonight’s tasks: Take off, exit the pattern.  A little steep turn work in the practice area and then off to do some night VOR navigation. Direct to, Track Outbound Radial, Turn back towards and intercept a specific radial…all with wind correction.  Altitude and speed to PTS.

A little issue initially with settling in my altitude prior to the 360’s.  It was just a matter of getting the trim right for the power setting. I did set about 100 RPM’s slower than normal which is what got things out of sync.  I am happy I am learning the airplane’s specific settings though.  Turns were on the money.

We set the VOR and began tracking to it.  About 15 miles. The winds were out of the NE tonight which is atypical but also a nice challenge.  Inbound tracking was quite simple and at this point the altitude was absolutely nailed.  Actually had some time to talk and look around.

Tracking outbound and back inbound were equally smooth.  Just some mountain wave turbulence as we went past the ridges.

I think my CFI had some other things in mind but the city scape was too inviting. She said…”let’s forget about the VOR and do some scenic flying.” Always mindful of the “surprise” I agreed.  There were no surprises tonight. We made the call to Harrisburg approach and said we would like to go lower and orbit the downtown area.  We were asked to maintain 3,500 but were cleared to fly around at will.

The one oddity was that with the winds out of the East, the approaches for KMDT and KCXY were essentially right in line with the city.  So, we were basically flying circles on the inbound traffic pattern!

Next task…turns about a point…with the point being the Capitol dome.  I laughed for a second..”won’t that get us some Blackhawks for an escort?” “Nah…they don’t care about Harrisburg.” Mindful of the wind direction and the higher than normal altitude I set up for my precision maneuver.

One thing about night flying as it relates to other air traffic.  MUCH easier to spot them (or at least their lights). Also, with being just above the approach path you can see a lot of it. So, we took turns pointing out the traffic  and then she had me keep breaking off the turn…not for avoidance as we were quite clear but “for a better look”.  SO cool to have regional jets skimming along silently underneath the little 172.

We finished 2 laps and decided to head back to N94.  Easy flight back.  My first landing ever on 10 and it has to be at night.  I didn’t have any landmarks for the proper pattern but she gave me the ones to use on the approach.  After turning on the pilot controlled runway lighting I had a few moments trying to locate the field but once I spotted it, the approach was pretty routine.

A little high but my CFI said…”At night, a little high is fine…throw in 40 degrees of flaps” which she calls the barn doors and the plane comes down quite nicely. Landing was best one in a while.  I was hoping to go around one more time but we had 1.4 in and it was time to call it a night. Re-approved for daytime solo.

Can’t wait to do that again.

NB: I had originally thought (and scheduled) my first 50NM solo cross country for next week.  I had written to my CFI to ensure I was authorized to do so and she responded yes.  When I mentioned it that night though there was some confusion.  She said I wasn’t yet authorized and further, the location I spoke about wasn’t the one I would do.  ???? Guess there was a mix up.  I still have to cover lost procedures and diversions…which I should have realized. So, no solo x-country yet but instead…we’ll do the long dual night and hopefully get the balance of the night requirement completed.  Not a bad compromise..See, it can be done!