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 recently visited my hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. I haven’t been back nearly enough. Some things haven’t changed. Other things have changed a lot. I got to spend time with a few people who were deeply influential to me while growing up. I took Lauren to see some of my childhood homes, and we saw a Lyle Lovett show at the Virginia Theater. Incidentally, we ran into Lovett at the Austin Airport while leaving for Champaign. He spoke with us for a few moments and seemed as stunned as we were that we were all on our way to the same show. Everything you’ve ever heard about him is true.
I made a point to rent an airplane and go flying. Urbana’s Frasca Field is where my dad bought me a plane ride when I was nine or ten years old. It was a cosmic experience for me. I got checked out in a Cessna 172 at Central Illinois Aviation, and the next day took Lauren for an aerial tour of the area. We went out over endless miles of corn and soybean, then turned in and did an aerial tour of the campus and cities.
Later, we took in the University of Illinois homecoming game against Purdue. We walked through West Side Park on several evenings, and I caught myself missing this place.
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.
It’s been a long, hot summer here in Austin. We’ve had more than 50 days of temperatures hitting 100 degrees or higher. As I’m not particularly fond of flying in excessive heat, I grounded myself for much of the summer. But today’s high of (only) 90+ degrees seemed like a good time to go flying and reset my currency in preparation for the upcoming cooler flying season.
After a methodical preflight, however, I did one final check of Foreflight radar just before starting the engine and was dismayed to see brand new thunderstorm cells popping up throughout the area. These new cells were tracking directly toward my planned route.
It would have been easy to go. It’s easy to feel pressured to make a go decision after so much time has been invested in the flight. I certainly felt that mental tug toward a poor decision today. I found myself trying to justify a go decision. Maybe I could beat the storms? Or I could route between them? Both were poor decisions, I concluded, and I started the humbling process of shutting down the airplane, packing my headset and sectional chart and securing the plane before driving home.
I’m grateful for the instructors over the years who stressed to me the importance of always being willing to walk away from a flight. One mental trick I use is to assume the flight will be a no-go all the way up to the completion of the Before Takeoff checklist. This way, both the airplane and the conditions need to convince me of their airworthiness. NTSB accident and incident reports are full of pilots who became too invested in their flight and continued on into poor weather or with unairworthy equipment. Mature pilots will resist that powerful temptation to fly when conditions or aircraft tell them to go home.