April 21, 2011
0440 UTC 2340 Local
Yeah we were definitely pushing it. A storm recently broke out in the area. I feverishly checked weather forecasts to make sure it was still Visual Flight Rules conditions. So far, the weather briefers over at Lockheed Martin gave a thumbs up. But who can predict the weather correctly 100% of the time?
My first cross country flight at night didn’t start smoothly. First, N3840V’s Nav lights and beacon were inoperative. Mike, my instructor with me for the flight, asked if I wanted to continue. I refused since yes, Nav lights and beacon are needed for flying at night and I was uncomfortable with running a flight on inoperative equipment. We had to do an aircraft swap so I was upgraded to the Cessna 172 for the price of a 152. That wasn’t a bad deal at all. Stall speed with flaps is a freaking 33 knots. 33 knots! That’s 37 mph. It’ll stay flying until you go slower than 37 mph.
I had to create a new flight plan from scratch with the new figures. Fortunately, the climbout speed and the cruise speed are the same as the 152 so a lot didn’t have to change.
We took off for Palestine at 10 PM local time, fully fueled. On our climbout, I set the Cedar Creek VOR at 114.8.
Below, it was a sea of black dotted by floating clusters of city lights. That’s all we had for pilotage reference that night. Sometimes, the city lights would wink in and out of the darkness. Crap. That meant clouds. And indeed, that was true. As we flew into one of the clouds, the reflection of our strobe lights got brighter and brighter until it got too annoying and we turned it off completely.
That’s the thing about night flight. You can’t see where you’re going and with no visual reference of progress, doubt starts to creep in from the back of your mind. I listen to the VOR emit a morse code on the radio to make sure we have the right VOR: dash dot dash dot dash dash dot dash dash dot dash dash.
Yeah, it’s the right one. But it sure is taking a long time for us to get to the VOR. I check the times on my flight plan…yes we’re on time. The endless darkness is warping my sense of time.
Finally, the flag on the VOR started to change. Good. I looked outside to find the rotating beacon at Palestine. I need to trust the instruments to tell me I’m on the right path. It’s an uneasy feeling but I keep reminding myself it’ll guide me through the darkness.
I tuned to Palestine’s common traffic frequency and clicked the mic seven times. The runway lights activated and I turned towards the wonderful strobes of lights flashing in the distance as if they were welcoming me home. I made the landing. The airport was desolate at the time. Metal hangers, streetlights few and far in between, not a soul in sight. It was an eerie feeling. The sound of the Lycoming engine in the Cessna punctured the silence.
By then the winds were howling. Before I landed, I noted in the distance that I couldn’t see anything. That meant clouds were approaching. We quickly taxied back to the end of the runway and took off to rejoin the darkness. Then, we flew straight into a cloud.
I was so disoriented that I didn’t even notice that I made a complete 180 turn. Didn’t even feel it happen. I only knew because Mike, my instructor with me, tapped on the panel. Note to self: always keep an eye on the instruments. After correcting my heading, we ascended through the scattered cloud layer. I looked outside and noticed a wide faint glow ahead. I figured it was the permaglow from the Dallas/Ft. Worth metro area. I kept heading for the glow for a long time. Little by little, the scattered splotches of light became an ocean of lights and the skies cleared out. It felt good to be back in civilization and be able to see something.
We finally made it back to Mesquite at 1 AM but Mike had me do all my 10 required takeoffs and landings at night. There was a great 30 knot wind right down the runway. Remember how I said the Cessna stalls at 33 knots? 3 knots ground speed was all I needed to land. I could practically float to the runway. I greased all 10 landings. By the time we were finished, it was 2 AM.
I tied the Cessna down. That was the last flight lesson I’ll do out of Texas. I shook Mike’s hand and we parted ways. Before I started my car for the ride home, I decided to hang for a minute at the airport since I won’t be back at HQZ for a very long time or even at all. Chains rattled, the metal hangers flexed, and the wind howled away. It was a warm and humid night. The runway lights had already dimmed out, done for the night. The Cessna that we used now sat in the dark on the concrete looking as if it never took part in our journey down to Palestine. On the radio, Adele’s “Rollin’ in the Deep” was playing. Though I can’t say what Adele was singing relates but the tune itself gave me a sense of closure and accomplishment. Even now, weeks later, as the song comes up on the radio, it easily brings up all the memories of my very first night cross country.