Saturday, October 30, 2010

...Through Footless Halls Of Air.

So, obviously it has been a very long time since I have written anything. I was moving, then didn't have my internet connection setup, then I was out of the habit of writing, and I just plain got busy! The business has had more activity this year then ever before, both in the maintenance shop and on the flight line. After having a wonderful flight tonight, however, I really wanted to share it. Enjoy...

Last week, I was instructing one of our customers, Paul, in his Piper Cherokee 140. It has nice off-white paint with a red and blue tail. About 70% through a cross-country flight to Flemingsburg, KY (which went very well and probably deserves a write-up itself) I mentioned to him that I enjoyed flying with him in his plane, especially since it is not a Skyhawk! Ok, so I like flying anything, and a Skyhawk is a reliable, predictable, jack-of-all-trades with decent performance: but I have flown in them a lot this summer, and at this point every other airframe ever built looks like a lot more fun. He offered to let me fly the plane if I would put gas in it, and I eagerly accepted. Every day since, the question on my mind has been "where do I want to go?"

After thinking about it for a while, I decided to plan a solo night cross country trip. Paul's plane is not equipped or certified for flight into instrument conditions, so I knew I would have to wait for a night with good weather and little chance of fog. The only other thing I had to work out was when to go. As it turned out, I didn't have to be at work terribly early this morning, and I don't have to be there ridiculously early tomorrow either. Oh yeah, and a high pressure ridge is dominating the weather for roughly the middle third of the US, so I knew the weather would be clear.

After locking the fuel pumps, balancing the cash register, settling the credit card machine, and closing the FBO this evening, I sat down at the desk with my plotter and a chart. I decided to navigate the old fashioned way - with nothing but a map, compass, clock, and a good view out the window. This is the way I teach students to fly at first, then I transition them to using navigation equipment like ground-based radio beacons and GPS. It is fun (and sometimes challenging) to fly only with pilotage and dead reckoning though, and at night the landscape looks different, making this type of navigation especially "thrilling."

The fuel tanks hold about 6 hours of gas, so I decided to try and fly about 4 hours total. Marion, Ohio looked about the correct distance away, so I got to work plotting lines, measuring bearing and distance, calling Flight Service for a briefing, and calculating compass error and wind corrections. I decided that I would have a groundspeed of about 78 knots on the way up and about 114 knots on the way back. Considering the distances, speeds, and routing, I planned on about 3:30 for a total flight time. With a planned departure of 7:00pm to be sure it was dark outside, I wouldn't be out too late, or get too tired, landing about 10:30. I called Marion just to be sure they have 24 hour self-serve fuel - in case I decided that more gas in the tanks would be prudent for the flight home.

The airport is a very quiet place after everyone has gone home and the sun has set. I did a preflight inspection of the Cherokee and all looked well except for the fuel level. After selling myself 25 gallons of 100 octane Low Lead aviation gas, I loaded my flight bag and emergency kit (hey, there is some dark, rough terrain between here and there!), organized the cockpit, and taxied out for departure.

Flight controls - free and correct. Throttle - 1800 RPM. Magnetos - check. Carburettor heat - check. Suction, engine, and electrical gauges - check. Fuel - fullest tank. Auxillary fuel pump - on. Navigation lights and flashing beacon - on. Throttle - full. With the last of the checklists complete, I accelerated down runway 8 and, at a speed of about 65 miles per hour, lifted off into the darkening night sky.

I turned on course, dimmed the lights, trimmed the plane for a climb to 5,500 feet above sea level, and settled back into my seat to look for landmarks. The first thing that struck me about flying on an October Friday night in the midwest was "geez, there are a lot of high school football games tonight, I wish the stadiums were on my chart." The visibility was unlimited, and in the 60 mile wide area I could see, there were at least a dozen stadiums lit up like beacons. Navigating the old fashioned way, the only way to know your speed over the ground is by matching up landmarks you can see out the window with things that are on the chart, and then timing how long it takes you to fly between them. With this time, and distance measured from the chart, you can calculate your groundspeed. After doing this a couple of times, I decided that my speed was exactly as I calculated on the ground, I was right on course and schedule, and life was grand. I continued to find checkpoints, clicked on the lights at the airports I passed, and was enjoying managing the flight. As I passed over Lancaster, Ohio, I switched fuel tanks and turned toward Marion Municipal.

My route of flight took me right over Port Columbus, in Columbus, OH. At my altitude, I could see the city lit up in all its glory - and at night the city looks huge. I could literally see a big haze of light in the air from Columbus from 60 miles south of the city. The airport was cool to see, as was the row of airliners below me on approach to the active runway tonight, 28 right. I especially enjoy flying at night. Up high, you can see the lights of towns, cities, and villages - sometimes from as many as 40 miles away. When there are no clouds and the sky is dark, you have no real depth perception, and sometimes it is almost like flying in a space capsule rather than in an airplane.

Approaching Marion, I cancelled my VFR radar services with Columbus Approach and began my descent. I landed at Marion on runway 25, light on medium intensity, taxied back for another takeoff and landing there, then headed to the ramp. Of course the ramp was dark - no planes, no people, etc. This is normal for an airport 2 hours after dark, but it was a little creepy anyway. I shut down and went to look for a vending machine. Found one and was ready to get a drink, but realized I didn't have any cash. Oh well. I checked the fuel tank that I had used for only one hour - it was down about 6 gallons. I was happy about this, because the plane normally uses 7.5 or 8 gallons per hour. To get fuel consumption low, I chose a high altitude (the plane gets more efficient as you go up), pulled the engine back to about 60% power, and leaned the mixture waaaay out. I decided to accept a slower airspeed in exchange for a huge improvement in fuel economy, especially since I wasn't in a hurry.

I walked around for a minute, took a couple pictures that didn't turn out (my camera doesn't work well at all at night) and began the flight home. Took off on a different runway - I used 13 for departure. It was most closely aligned with my on course heading home, the taxi route was shorter than for the long runway, and there was no wind at all on the surface.

Headed back, I climbed to 7,500' to catch a tail wind and started the process of navigation. My speed and course calculations from before were still coming out perfectly, and the trip back was really relaxing. Over Columbus, I heard the controller ask a regional jet if he could hear an emergency locator beacon on the emergency frequency. He said he could not, but I went ahead and tried to see if I could pick one up. Sure enough, I could hear one very faintly through the static, and I let ATC know. 10 miles later, I tried again, and the beacon was much stronger. Again, I let the controller know what I was hearing. Just as I was about to leave Columbus' airspace, she asked me if I could try and pick up the beacon again, but I must have moved too far away - I couldn't hear it any more. I hope my reports helped them zero in on the location of the transmitter somewhat, and I hope they discover some fool who landed too hard and went home rather than somebody in trouble out there - its a cold night in central Ohio.

Turned the corner over Lancaster and set my sights for home. I checked my groundspeed by timing myself between two points. 114 knots. I checked that number against the GPS on my phone - 114 knots. I smiled to myself, because 114 knots was exactly what I calculated I would be traveling about three hours before. I hesitate to say that I am so good, but sometimes things just come out right.

Arriving back in my home area, I was switched to Huntington Approach and requested clearance to do a touch and go at the big airport before heading back to home base. The controllers sounded bored, and sleepy, and I was cleared for the option on runway 30 about 20 miles away. I rolled the wheels on their runway for just a second and was back in the air enroute home.

After landing, mooring the plane, cleaning my stuff out of the cockpit, and putting the keys back in the key box, I headed home. 3.8 hours of night, solo, cross country flight. In not-a-Skyhawk. 4 landings at 3 airports. This is what I get to write on the very first line in my new log book - I closed my first log this week because it is full: another milestone in my life as a flight instructor.