I was scheduled to fly yesterday and go to NYC today, but the weather yesterday was abysmal (thunderstorms, rain, tornado watch). So I delayed my travel a day and flew today.
Actually, I flew this evening, because night flying woohoo!
Since I'm a geek, and since I was caught out trying to flail around for my sectional chart last time I flew, I asked myself what was likely to happen during a night flight, and decided to go buy some flashlights to have in the flight bag. You know - just in case. The Cessna that I fly is, as I have mentioned, not in the most pristine of shape as far as internal non-critical systems - and I was willing to bet that 'cabin lights' fell into that category. Unfortunately for me (or fortunately) I was staying with some friends when I thought of this, and one said "Hey, I have to go to REI, let's go, they have good flashlights."
Yeah. Also: expensive flashlights. I ended up buying three lights: a good head-mounted lamp, with red mode (for night vision maintenance use in the air) white mode, strobes of both, and lock mode so it doesn't get turned on in the bag. I bought a second, emergency headlamp with the same modes but only 10 lumens rather than the 55 of the primary lamp. Then I bought a pocket white penlight for inspections and tertiary emergency use. Since this was REI and these were LED lights, that came to $85. Weeee!
Got to the airport tonight and it was nice and clear out, the temps around 52 degrees and the last light of the day fading. I waited for my CFI to come back in (he was flying) and he landed and came into the office around 7:20 - so we got to the ramp and the airplane at around 7:40, by which time it was almost completely dark. Woohoo! Put on the main headlamp and did a walk-around. The 172 had flown earlier in the day - so I was amazed to find no fewer than 5 perfect, complete spiderwebs, each with spider waiting hopefully in the center, spun in the gaps between the control surfaces and the wings/horizontal stabilizers. I felt somewhat guilty as I moved the control surfaces and watched the spiders scurry out of the light - and somewhat amused to note that all of them scurried into adjoining structure, not onto the ground. I wonder how many spiders live in the wings and stabilizers of 12732. Probably quite a few, actually. Must be extraordinarily well-traveled spiders.
The plane was fine, and had 25 gallons of avgas in it. I drained the tanks twice, being sure there was no water in the second cup (there had been some water from condensation in the first samples), and gave the sump an extra drain second. By that time my CFI had climbed into the plane, so I joined him and we fired up the airplane. Everything was working; I learned that no, this plane doesn't have instrument lighting, but rather has a red light in the cabin ceiling to illuminate the instruments. This is fine, except that I'm large enough that I block the leftmost instruments - turn and bank and airspeed. Not terrible, I just had to lean slightly to the left to see 'em. In any case, we taxied out to One Four and I lit the runway (five clicks on the mic), did the pre-takeoff check and rolled out.
Turns out 12732 has a really, really bright taxi light - as we climbed out, when we were at 700 feet, it was still visibly illuminating the ground beneath the airplane. It would have been nice if it hadn't been aimed pretty much straight down - because from the pilot's seat, on the ground, the light essentially lit up the tarmac directly beneath the nose, where I couldn't see anyway. Psssh, whatever. NIGHT FLYING! I get excited about this, you see, because it's awesome. Last time I did this, I was in Northern New Jersey - it was bright enough to read in the cabin from the light from the ground pretty much anywhere we went. Here, in western Mass, it was much darker. The area around the airport is well lit - Northampton and Amherst - but if you look out to the north and west, it swiftly turns to black emptiness where the nature preserve starts, west of I-91. We went around the pattern, and I somehow ended up in too close to the runway and a bit fast, so I carried a deal of speed around even though I ended up low. Confusing. My CFI mentioned dryly "So at night, red/red is probably bad, right?" referring to the fact that I'd come in below glideslope. Totally right- at night, you can't see the obstructions, so you'd really rather come in high and bleed the speed with a slip. Made the landing, though, and went around again.
The second time was better - I ended up too close, my base leg was super short again, but this time I was above the glideslope the whole way down. I came in too fast, and used up 3/4 of the runway - Still, I flared in time and settled to the runway, making the turnoff.
Time the third was interesting. I once more ended up super close on base - I essentially had to stay in my turn to base to get onto final, and even then correct back to the left. I realized, though, that there was a crossroads which I normally kept under my left wing on downwind which, at night, had a bright light visible - and I was unconsciously aiming for it, cutting my downwind leg in towards the runway. Derp. The third landing was just fine, other than having to make a hard bank to get lined up since I was so close ("I kinda don't like steep turns at night this close to the ground, do you?").
Fourth approach was no good - too high. I was in too close and trying to stay high to stay above the glideslope, and when we rolled out from the turn to final, i said "Nah. Way too high. Going around." I got a nod, which meant yep, I was way too high but had regained a few points by realizing it. Fourth landing was much better - spoiled only by a slightly incomplete flare and a landing which for me was a first - we touched down with the nose first. Whoooooops. Still, only a slight bounce, all OK.
Fifth was pretty much a 'normal' landing. By staying what I felt was WAAAAAY the heck out in the pattern, I managed to avoid cutting inwards on downwind, and thus came in on the glideslope. I was a bit high, though - as we came over the threshold, I was at the correct airspeed but high. I said "Hmmm, are we...?"
"Yeah, we're OK." So I landed it, and yep, we were OK. My speed had been better (slower) so we still came to a stop just past the turnoff.
We left it at 5 landings. I have to do a night cross-country to qualify for my checkride, so that will give me the additional hour of night flying time I need; I now have 13 landings at night of the required 10. While I don't think I'd produce an elegant landing at an unfamiliar airport, I now have no doubt I can safely land the airplane.
Next week: 'long' ( > 55nm each way ) cross-country, and then I do a solo X-C, and we do a dual night X-C (my CFI suggested we go get dinner in New Bedford, which has a decent airport restaurant, sounds good to me!) and after that...
After that, according to him, we start doing prep work for my checkride. That might take several flights, but at this point, it's back to hitting the books for the oral component, and doing ground reference maneuvers and short/soft field takeoffs and landings to get procedures right.