Friday, August 26, 2005

Night Flight

I like flying at night. You could attribute this to my freight-dogging days, but that brings back memories of fighting to keep myself awake over a dark desert. Here's my own theory: during the day, you look at the scenery, but from FL250 it's seldom a better view than from the ground. At night, you look at the stars, and it's always better viewing than from terra firma. I love turning the cockpit lights down low and gazing at the stars. During a new moon, the effect is especially overpowering: the sky, lit up with millions of stars, contrasts to the darkness of an earth only occasionally punctuated by the glow of civilization. Back east, you can't get far enough away from the cities to experience this.

Night flying can be disorienting, especially to a newer pilot. Flying on dark nights with overcast skies is a very close thing to instrument flying. I remember flying over northern Minnesota on such a night shortly after I got my private license, and finding myself in a 40 degree bank without realizing it. Even after 700 hours of night time, I still find uncomfortable moments when circling to a "black hole" runway at night. For the most part, though, the only way to get comfortable at night is to get the experience.

Most freight dogs have extensive night experience; a few seldom log any day time. I didn't enjoy night flying nearly as much when I flew freight for AEX, because it was always at the end of a long, exhausting day, and I was fighting sleep for my final hour over the dark Mojave. I'd listen to Art Bell on the ADF, work mental math problems, do a few steep turns, even pinch myself...anything to stay awake. I almost welcomed turbulence, thunderstorms, or icing along my route: they'd ensure I stayed alert.

I don't seem to have that problem at this company. Having an extra crewmember to talk to helps, as does having extra room to stretch and move around to keep the blood flowing. I'm usually still wide awake when we finish flying. One thing I do dislike about PM schedules is that we'll typically arrive at our layover around midnight, which puts the kibosh on going out to the bar with your crew. Even if you're not going back out until 5pm the next day, my company prohibits consuming alcohol on the same calendar day that you fly, ie starting at midnight.


david said...

I'm with you on night flights -- I love them even in IMC or (potential) icing conditions, but especially when I can see the stars.

In Canada, they make us get a separate rating for night flight, with extra hood time (on top of the time required for the PPL), and we also do a lot of reading about the black hole effect. It scares me, too. I find it especially instructive to tune in the ILS -- a 3-degree glidepath is way too low for a small plane, and during the day, it feels that way; at night, though, I often feel that I'm too high on a long final until I look at the needle or the approach lights. My personal rule (in a little Warrior) is not to descend below circuit altitude at night until I'm within a mile of the runway, unless I have a glidescope, VASI, or PAPI to help me keep from flying into the ground.

Lost Av8r said...

One of my memorable flights was a Thompson - Shamattawa - Thompson trip a couple of days before Christmas. It had to be -40 out, Crystal clear. I took a load of food to Sham town for Christmas dinner and came back empty. The Northern Lights started to dance about 1/2 way through the trip and didn't stop till I was on the ground. It was awesome.