My first night flight, wow what an experience. My CFI and I went over some night flying basics in the classroom such as night vision, illusions, emergencies, and differences in how you must go about approach and landing. Due to these many new pilots tend to come in too low or rotate too early when landing causing the airplane to drop to the runway. Also all your visual clues are skewed so flying the pattern around the airport to land takes a whole new set of skills.
The plan was to take off and go out north to PA to the practice area above Lake Marburg. From the very beginning the take off roll felt very different, with your depth perception limited the runway lights zoom by and all you can focus on is the runway centerline…. kind of like driving into heavy snow at night and peering out the windshield only to have your eyes focus on the snowflakes. After rotation the airplane begins to climb but because all you see is blackness out the windshield you have to rely on your cockpit instruments to stay centered with the runway and control your speed and climb rate so you don’t stall and come dropping to the ground.
Climbing out for 6 minutes to 3500 feet all you can do is fly by instruments due to the pitch of the airplane. Night flying is probably the closest you can come to instrument flying, aside from accidentally flying into the clouds = really bad, if you’re not instrument rated. Even once you level out at cruise you still have to rely on your instruments more than you do during daytime flight because depending on how populated the area is and how many lights there are you lose your horizon and often it is hard to tell where the ground stops and the sky begins. Especially during steep turns or maneuvers, when you come out of them and have to level the wings, for instance when you pull out of a dive resulting from a stall, you have a hard time knowing exactly where up and down and level are….
Once over the lake I did some slow flight where I put the airplane into a configuration where it is at minimum controllable speed, any slower and it stalls. Then I practiced some slow shallow turns, climbing, and recovery. Next I practiced a power-off stall. Basically I put it into slow flight really quickly and then pushed it past the line causing the aircraft to stall. When the airplane gets that slow in slow flight the nose it pointed up and you are only going about 40 knots. When the full stall occurs the airplane loses all lift, the nose drops and you instantly go into a nose down dive; though it doesn’t feel all that slow, more like going over the top of a really steep climb in a roller coaster. To recover I slam the throttle to full power and push the nose down, retract the flaps to 20 degrees, level out and let it pick up speed and begin to climb, then slowly retract the remaining flaps and level out. All while staying on course and losing as little altitude as possible. This simulates allowing the airplane to get to slow when landing and then incorrectly pulling back on the yoke to gain altitude instead of using power to do so.
On to some more basic maneuvers I do a couple of steep turns, a 360 degree turn at a 45 degree bank. You pretty much stay in place and rotate around your wingtip in the direction of the turn. All this takes on a whole new feeling at night with your lack of depth perception and reliance on your greater reliance on instruments. Finally its back to the airport to practice night landings.
Flying around the airport pattern at night is hard to describe, as well as is finding the airport at times! One would think with all the lights it would stand out but when it is next to the city all those lights blend together. Once back at the airport I entered the pattern and flew parallel to runway 34. Then we did 7 landings, stopping completely on the runway before taking off again. This is normally only done at night since night currency regulations require all landings to be to a full stop.
Again you have to rely much more heavily on your instruments at night than during the daytime. The first time I took off and made my turnout I completely lost my perception for where the runway was and had a hard time finding it! NOT GOOD… but normal for a 1st timer. By the time I reoriented myself I was too close to the runway and low which messes up your entire pattern landing process. I corrected and got myself squared away on the next few landings but constantly had to fight to work towards my turns being 90 degrees and keeping my speed correct.
Some small airport’s lights do not stay on all night, some have low/med/high intensity settings. You turn the lights on and adjust the intensity by tuning to a specified radio frequency and clicking the mike a certain number of times. So at 10 miles out you turn them on and they stay on until a timer turns them off. It’s a good idea to adjust the intensity before final approach to make sure the timer doesn’t shut them off just before you get to the runway! On one trip around the pattern my CFI pulled one of their dirty little tricks and turned the lights to low intensity. He asked me if I saw the airport saying some airports only have low intensity lights. I had a really hard time making out the airport even though I was looking right at it 1/4 mile in front of me. He said tell me when you think your lined up with the runway….. I did… nope that’s a taxiway! It is entirely possible to miss the airport or land on a taxiway. Extreme caution and diligence is required for night flying!
I constantly found myself to slow, which can dangerous it you fail to correct it, and the lack of depth perception makes short final just before you get over the runway really challenging. By the last few landings I was starting to get a feel for it. You have to learn to read the visual ques differently at night so you don’t overshoot, come in to high, or dive into the ground just before the runway. Slowly it stated to come together.
I need a minimum of 3 hours of night flight with 10 takeoff/landings to a full stop. Next night flight will be a cross-country to fulfill the remaining time and landing requirements.