I’ve logged very little night flying since I earned my private pilot certificate in 2012. A few years ago I experienced a sensory illusion while returning from a local airport after sunset, and the experience startled me enough that I decided to refrain from night flying until I could log more instrument training and build more pronounced situational awareness.
To refresh my night currency I went flying with David, my instrument instructor, over the weekend. We did a quick round robin of local airports to acquire the three full-stop night landings as required by FAR §61.57.
We departed Austin-Bergstrom and made a very short hop of 13nm north to Austin Executive Airport. Prior to starting our approach we briefed obstacles in the area, including a set of unlighted towers south of the airport. We were cleared to land on Runway 13, and I made a slow and methodical approach. My landing wasn’t anything to brag about. We bought fuel at Executive and did a quick walkthrough of the impressive facility, which includes a large media room, a theater and “quiet rooms.”
Next we departed Austin Executive and headed 18nm northwest to Georgetown Municipal Airport. The airport was difficult to see coming from the west, but we tracked a VOR and monitored GPS coordinates that took us directly to the field. I was cleared for a stop-and-go landing on Runway 18 and made a much better landing. I brought the plane to a full stop with about 2,000 feet of runway to spare. We did a short field takeoff and used 10 degrees of flaps for a rapid climb out of the traffic pattern.
From there we headed 29nm south to Austin, where David had me fly the ILS to Austin-Bergstrom’s Runway 17L. We identified the approach fixes using our number 2 VOR. Several miles out, David covered my airspeed indicator and had me fly the glide slope down to the threshold. The simulated failure really demonstrated how useful the localizer, glide slope and power setting are in such a situation. My final landing of the night was much more precise.
Although I’m now legal to carry passengers for night flight, I don’t yet feel especially proficient. I look forward to logging more time in both the simulator and in the aircraft to really hone proficiency.
I’ve been spending a couple of nights each week at the airport working with my instructor in the flight school’s simulator. We’ve been practicing flying airways, identifying intersections, using VOR receivers and flying holding patterns. Holds are tricky –– I’m proficient enough while in the hold, but there are a variety of ways to enter the hold depending on where your aircraft is relative to the fix at which you’re holding. Some of it is counterintuitive to me, but I’m making progress.
I enjoy flying DME Arcs –– a procedure for transitioning from the en route segment of flight into the approach segment. Essentially, you enter the approach on a “curve” or arc using the VOR OBS and heading indicator to turn 10 degrees at a time until you cross the initial approach fix. Although a lot of instrument students struggle flying DME Arcs, it comes relatively easy to me.
A couple of weeks ago I bought a used desktop computer on eBay and have been using that as a home simulator. A major benefit of the home sim is practicing instrument scans during different phases of flight. I also like practicing VOR work. The home simulator uses a replica of the Garmin 430, which is a standard GPS device in the Cessna 172s I fly.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be flying Standard Instrument Departures (SIDs) and Standard Terminal Arrival Routes (STARs), then begin flying actual approaches at nearby airports.
I’m continuing to work toward my instrument rating. I’m learning that there is much more to this rating than flying in challenging weather conditions. The rating is about developing discipline, precision and workload management. The little things matter: How you test and tune nav and comm radios, how you organize in-fight documents and how you determine the airworthiness of both your aircraft and navaids along a given route. The training puts a premium on minimizing mental and emotional bandwidth, both of which are precious commodities when flying through more demanding conditions. Eyes and other senses must also be disciplined and trained so not to misinterpret flight dynamics and control changes. Even language becomes more precise: VORs don’t broadcast a signal, they emanate a signal. My instructor is disciplined, and expects the same. Training consists of ground study, simulator work and flying. I find that talking about concepts, applying those concepts in a simulator and then in actual flight provides a productive framework for deeper learning.
This weekend I started training toward my instrument rating. My flight instructor is a great teacher and will be a good fit. After about an hour of ground instruction, we logged 1.8 hours in the flight simulator. We did basic attitude instrument flying in the clouds and shot an instrument approach through the rain.
I attended an FAA safety seminar last weekend about engine failures, and it has me thinking about my personal experiences.
I experienced my only engine failure to date shortly after a night takeoff, which in my opinion is the absolute the worst time to lose confidence in your engine.
I was a relatively new student pilot and still several months away from my checkride. My instructor and I had just departed on a night cross-country flight. I was at the controls, climbing out of 1,500 feet AGL just a few miles from the airport when the engine stuttered. My instructor didn’t notice the engine’s hesitation. My attention went to the tachometer. It slid downward a second time. The plane pulled. This time she noticed. I was keenly aware that we were engulfed in a black, night sky. A highway below contained considerable traffic so wasn’t an option. If we had to put the plane down into the blackness, there would be no telling where we’d end up. There was no way to know what was inside that abyss –– farm equipment, livestock, fences, water. All were dismal landing environments.