Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Night Cross-Country

Monday night I finally completed the night cross-country flight that is required of a private pilot. I believe that was the last of my requirements, and I am now technically prepared to take the test.

I got to the airport just after 6pm and Chris and I started going over Oral Exam questions. The test is two parts: the actual check-ride and an oral exam, where Royal (the examiner) can ask me basically anything at all related to flying. Luckily, for this oral exam I don't need to know everything, but I do need to know the basics, and how to look up information I don't know.

Chris started asking me questions that I hadn't had time to get to yet, and I didn't know the answers and instead attempted to bullshit my way through it. Bad choice. When I don't know something on this test, admit it. Chris warned me that Royal will catch me and call me out on it; better to admit it and look it up, he'd have more respect of my decision making that way. Unfortunately still, these were some of the most basic questions, the kind I shouldn't be looking up. Clearly I still needed to do a LOT of studying.

Once it started getting dark, Chris and I went out to the plane for take-off. I did most of the pre-flight talks that I'm going to have to complete during my check-ride (such as telling my passengers what to do in case of any problems and using the proper checklist), then we taxied down to the runway for take-off. I'd prepared a flight plan to Orange County Airport (MGJ), an untowered airport with two runways in NY State, west of the Hudson and just west of Stewart Airport, which was in class D airspace.

We took off runway 36 with almost no winds and head left. I made the mistake of not starting my turn until 1600', when a turn should be started "within 300' of traffic pattern altitude." Another mental note for me.

Using my sectional and my flight plan I navigated us over the first checkpoint before quickly learning my lesson: navigation during night flight is much harder. (The "digital VOR" that I often mention, technically called a LORAN, was turned off. Chris knew it would make the flight too easy.) The checkpoints I'd picked out would have been great for day flight, but at night things like small airports and lakes were almost impossible to locate. As I maintained my heading and altitude (4500') I tried to figure out how far along my course I was. I kept staring at my sectional, then trying to find the landmarks outside. This was a mistake, and one Chris let me make to teach me a lesson. Once I thought I'd figured out where we were, he told me I was wrong. What I should be doing is picking things from OUTSIDE, then finding them on the sectional, not the other way around. I'd read that before, but in flight forgotten to practice it. If you do it the wrong way, you'll convince yourself you're somewhere you're not, and that could cause troubles.

Without warning, Chris asked me where I would land in an emergency: I had no clue. This wasn't a surprise to me, as I'd thought about it before and didn't know where to land in an emergency at night. Chris pointed to the highway I'd just found below us and said, "that's a lighted runway in an emergency; there nothing better at night except an airport." He followed up by asking me if I should land with - or against - traffic. With, of course. Then as cars see a plane about to land in front of (or behind them) they can get out of the way, whereas a head-on situation would give them much less time to react.

Eventually I figured out that the city in front of us was one of my checkpoints, and Stewart Airport was right past it (and the Hudson), exactly as I'd expected. Chris pointed out the bridge crossing the Hudson and made a final note about emergency landings: "never, ever land on a bridge. I'd pick the water before the bridge. Bridges have ropes and beams that hold them up, and you're very likely to hit them coming in for a landing there. Avoid it." Good advice; I'd made a mental note to avoid all bridges since my encounter with one at Goodspeed.

I flew over Stewart, making sure to stay clear of their airspace, before I found Orange County. I'd told Chris my options: contact Stewart to enter their airspace as I descend to Orange County, or overfly Orange County before descending in the free airspace to the west of it. Chris had me chose, so I went with the latter.

Being uncontrolled, Orange County doesn't have a tower to talk to, but a UNICOM. A UNICOM is a "UNIversal COMmunication" radio: everyone around that airport should just announce where they are and what they're doing, and anyone in the area can talk with each other. It's a simple idea, and it works pretty well, but I don't have a lot of experience with it. When a helicopter was flying over the airport, Chris took over the radios and controls. Apparently I had just reported that I was entering right down-wind for runway 21 (when I had MEANT to say that I INTENDED to enter right down-wind for that runway). He informed me of my mistake and said "you have to descend pretty quick if you just told them you're entering right down-wind right now," as he banked the plane about 60-70 degrees in a tight turn to descend fast. I asked "couldn't I just correct myself?" Chris said I could, but we were already there by then.

Coming in for landing was fine, though I did it very high intentionally. Chris had warned me that we were going to be flying right over a mountain that I'd never see at night, so I wanted to make sure I was clear of it.

As we came in to land, Chris made one last radio call and the runway lights went out. Instantly I realized what happened: on untowered airports, at night, the runway lights were pilot-controlled on the UNICOM frequency. When you press down to make a radio call on that frequency, it adjusts the lights. There are four settings: off, low, medium and high. I quickly asked Chris "how many times do I need to press [the radio button] to turn them back on? 5?" Chris gave me his usual sink-or-swim answer: "you tell me." I tried 5: "I think 5 is medium, 3 is low and 7 is high."



Then they came on, to medium. I was right, but it took a few seconds for them to turn on. I made a mental note; not for my check-ride, but for the next time I'm flying at night: don't panic if it takes them a few seconds. Once that was sorted out, I came in to land.

After I touched-down and made my radio calls I started to taxi to what I thought was taxiway A, but was actually grass. Though I wouldn't have made it there before catching my mistake, Chris took the controls anyway and teased me about it. Once we got onto the taxi-way we turned around almost immediately and Chris made the radio call that we were going to take-off the same way we came in to land (runway 3; the opposite end of runway 21). Normally you wouldn't do this because of wind, but with no wind, there was no reason not to.

My take-off was more "by the numbers" (per Chris's instruction) this time. Pulled back at 50 knots and once I took-off I got some speed before climbing at 70 knots. Chris then pointed out the mountain that I never saw: to the left was a huge ridge that extended 600' above the runway to 1000' MSL. A lone red light marked the top of it, but was so small I never noticed it during the landing.

Chris instructed me to climb west of Orange County before I headed back east, so that I wouldn't break Stewart Airspace. He then asked me what altitude their airspace went to, what height I should go to and why. "They go to 3000', I'm going to 3500' because (1) a VFR flight heading east needs to be at odd-thousand plus 500 feet and (2) if a gust of wind or poor judgement knocks me down 50' I don't want to break their airspace." My reasons were fine, but Chris added one more: we hadn't adjusted the altimeter for Orange County, so the air pressure was still set for Oxford. While it wasn't going to make a HUGE difference, it was something to remember, and certainly a good point.

We were still climbing to 5500' as we flew above Stewart, that way we could see more landmarks and have more time if an emergency occurred. Then I told Chris that I'd forgotten to make a flight plan back, but I could use my original one in reverse... to some extent. He told me I should have made it, but wasn't too harsh, since I'd simply not had enough time to make another one. Because checkpoints over this area wasn't too good, Chris reminded me that keeping my heading was my best friend. I had flown to Orange County with a heading of 273, so my heading back should be "140, which is what I'm on now."
"What? Your heading should be 140?"
"Yeah... or wait... 120? No, yeah, 140." I was obviously confused.
"What direction did we fly there with?"
"I mean: we went [almost due] west. So coming back we should go..."
"East! Wait... east is 090... oops!"

I had tried doing some overly complex math in my head instead of doing the simple thing. It wasn't intentional, nor an attempt to impress anyone, just a mistake. I explained it to Chris and apologized that I wasn't thinking. He actually said, "you were thinking, and that's a good thing." True, but I pointed out that thinking the wrong thing was still a mistake. From now on I'll double-check using a different system.

As we got closer to Oxford I spotted Hartford, then the two high towers by Robertson. I knew Oxford had to be coming up on my right at some point. Then Chris took control.

Oxford was just off our right. In fact, it looked like we were just 4 miles out, though Chris pointed out that this was a visual trick of the night. He called the tower and we got clearance to land. I noticed Waterbury, then the tower at the airport, before Chris gave me back the controls. I had gotten lost - which is normal for a first night flight. After I get me license, I want Chris to instruct me so I can get better at it, and eventually be able to do it comfortably solo.

As I came in to land, Chris turned off the landing light, which helps illuminate the runway under the nose wheel. Not comfortable with it, and not sure he intended for me to leave it off, I turned it back on and said "nope, it's on." He didn't hear me, because once we'd landed I repeated it. Apparently he didn't realize I had turned it back on and called me a bum. I told him that during my night training he could make me do touch-and-gos with the landing light off, if he wanted. That's going to be an interesting night when it comes.

After shut-down, Chris told me to just hit the books. There's only three ways I would fail, he said: stare at the instruments, making up excuses, not knowing the basics. The first two are things I'm just going to have to hold myself to; the third I needed to fix.

I've spent almost all my "free" time studying since that flight, and I'll be meeting with Chris again tonight, then tomorrow morning before the 9am check-ride.

I don't know if I'll have time to post before then, but if not: wish me luck! This could be a great birthday :)

No comments: