Lesson 17: Night Flying

Aircraft: C172 N52654

Flight  Time:  1.2 hours

Total Hours: 19.6

My first experience flying at night. The objective of this lesson was to teach me nighttime navigational techniques and how to be deal with some of the spacial disorientations and optical illusions that can occur while flying in the dark.

We took off from Merrill, headed out over the Knik Arm and turned north, tracking towards the Big Lake VOR. Along the way, my instructor had me perform some basic maneuvers and practice stall recovery, which, as with any low visibility situations, are referenced primarily by using the attitude indicator. At one point, we headed straight west, where there were no lights at all on the ground and were essentially flying in total blackness, which is exciting and a bit eerie. It would be very easy to get lost in the dark and I even found myself slightly disoriented about which way North was.

As we got closer to Big Lake, we began looking for the airport beacon, a steady flashing green/white light. It can be pretty hard to pick out with all the street lights and traffic lights, but eventually we found it. I tuned to he CTAF (common traffic frequency) and broadcast that I was west of the airport and overflying the airport at 2,500 feet. As we got closer, my instructor showed me the procedure for activating the pilot controlled lighting, which is really cool. By clicking the mic seven times in a row, you can remotely bring up the brightness of the runway lights. They stay on for a few minutes and then fade back down. This way, the airport doesn’t have to keep them on max brightness all night long and the landing pilot can bring them up or down as needed.

Once past Big Lake, we flew back across the arm towards Birchwood, where we did two touch and go landings. This was my first time landing at a field other than Merrill, my first time landing without the visual aid of VASI lights (visual approach slope indicator) and my first time landing at a non tower field. The main difference here is that you watch out for other traffic and broadcast your turns in the pattern on the CTAF. Both landings were very good, even the second one, when I came in a bit low and could see the treetops near the end of the runway and my instructor made it interesting by turning off my landing light on final. I corrected my descent rate and touched down smoothly.

Leaving Birchwood, we turned back towards Anchorage and flew alongside the Chugach foothills. There was quite a bit of turbulence next to the mountains, due to a big low pressure system coming in, which made for a bumpy ride. As we got closer to Merrill, I called up the tower and came in for three more landings, all of which went exceptionally well. I joked that in the dark, I didn’t have the runway to distract me. 

It did occur to me, though, that my landings with two people in the plane have generally been better than my solo landings. I asked my instructor if this was due to the difference in performance due to a lighter plane and he assured me that yes, this does make a difference. I tend to float more on my solo flares than on my dual flares, because a heavier plane will settled down more quickly onto the runway. The solution, he told me, is to slow my final approach speed by a few knots when I’m by myself.

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