Today is December 22, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Here in Minneapolis it is short indeed, at 8 hours and 46 minutes. The sun rises at nearly 8AM, sets at 4:30PM, and never reaches higher than 21.6º above the horizon. This is the price we pay for gloriously long summer days with lingering sunsets and dusky twilights that cling to the western horizon 'till nearly midnight. This time of year, those languid summer evenings are what the 9-to-5ers think about as they drive to and from work in pitch black darkness. I personally feel that the constant gloom of a Minnesota winter is far more oppressive than the extreme cold. Today, though, I'll feel better knowing that the worst is behind us and it will get a little lighter every single day.
Ironically, given my attitude towards winter's long nights, I love night flying. Roughly 20% of my total flight time, 1500 hours out of nearly 8000, is night time. Of course I occasionally flew at night during training and flight instructing, but it wasn't until my time as a freight dog that I regularly flew after dark. For a while I flew cancelled checks from Las Vegas to Burbank every weeknight at midnight, and it was on that run that I learned to love the homey glow of a darkened cockpit, the march of the stars overhead, the glowing clusters of civilization slipping past through the inky void of the Mojave. Alas, that was also the run on which I awoke from a micro-sleep on short final to Burbank with no recollection of the previous thirty minutes.
Today, the flow of the seasons is reflected in the pages of my logbook. The night time column, rarely touched in summers, is darkened by entries nearly every day in wintertime. Some pages, it constitutes nearly half of my flight time. I don't mind at all. Night flying in airliners may lack some of the romance of being alone over the Mojave, but it also lacks the unseen mountains, the suddenly rough engines, the unexpected icing, and most of the bonenumbing fatigue. Truth told, the modern airliner is as easy to fly at night as at high noon - and in some respects, easier. I have radar, GPS, and TAWS to keep me out of trouble. I have an FO to talk with and to keep me awake. I have flight attendants to bring me coffee. There is less traffic, quiet reigns on the radio, and ATC is exceptionally accommodating.
Most of all I love the feeling of a smooth flight on a clear, dark eve. The magic
of flight, once so self-evident in my youth but lost to familiarity years ago, returns once more. The smallness of my little pressurized world of aluminum and fiberglass becomes evident before the fathomless expanse of the universe laid bare above us. The amber cockpit, dimmed to the softest glow, becomes a cocoon, a time capsule, a magic carpet floating across the slumbering earth. The cares of my day and the pressures and frustrations of my job slip away. I become peaceful, content, and grateful in the silence. Night is a wonderful time to be aloft.
I think many, if not most, pilots who've been flying long feel the way I do. I can see it on the countenance of my First Officers. Our nocturnal conversations are unusually relaxed, genial, and thoughtful. Acquaintances become friends and friends become confidants in the dimness of their shared cockpit.
For all my fondness of night flying, I haven't flown after dark in a small plane since 2004 - until recently, that is. The Cessna 170 I fly is nicely equipped for night VFR, and not
being able to fly at night greatly limits your flying during a Minnesota winter. Weekend before last, I took the 170 up for three nighttime trips around the pattern. At first it was downright eerie. There was none of the comfortable familiarity of the JungleBus. I felt naked - understandably so, in a single-engine piston at a deserted, poorly lit airport. After three full-stop landings, though, the old familiarity started coming back. Dawn climbed in and we took off for a flight around the Twin Cities, looking at Christmas lights and circling downtown Minneapolis. It was a beautiful, and fun, and relaxing way to spend an evening, sharing the magic of a night flight with my lovely wife.
I enjoyed it so much that I did it again this weekend, this time with my little brother Steve and his girlfriend Torrie. She'd never flown in a small plane so I had her sit up front, and she was enraptured from the start. As we flew over their house and around downtown and past Lake Calhoun, Torrie reached back to take Steve's hand and I could see it
etched on their faces: the thing I love about night flying, the thing I first loved about flying itself. On the way back out to Buffalo, I had Torrie fly the plane. Later, as we put the old bird back in her hangar, Steve and Torrie talked excitedly about what it would take to get their pilots licenses and buy an airplane.
Maybe they really got bit hard, or maybe it's just talk fueled by the excitement of the moment. It doesn't matter. It felt really good to give them that. It's said that the best gift you can give is that which you value dearly. That's exactly what I gave them. It felt wonderful...it felt, I dare say, like Christmas.