Lesson 21: Night Cross Country to Talkeetna

Aircraft: C172 N52654

Flight Time: 2.5 hours

Total Hours: 27.6

This was my second attempt at the night cross country lesson. I’d been weathered out with low clouds and turbulence on my last try, but after checking the current and forecasted conditions with my instructor, we made the decision to fly to Talkeetna. There was quite a bit of wind up high, but not enough at ground level to cause any real problems. Or so we hoped. Hopefully we’d get to complete this lesson tonight, because with Daylight Savings Time just around the corner, darkness is coming later and later here in Alaska this time of year. Putting if off again could mean flying until past midnight just to get in the required hours. Waiting until summer up here, when there is really no darkness, means that you can’t actually get a full private pilot license until you can fulfill those hours.

We reviewed my cross country plan, which relied primarily on VOR navigation, since it would be too dark to pick out very many visual checkpoints, preflighted 654 and climbed to 4,500 feet after takeoff. I still needed a bit of time under the hood to meet my private pilot requirements, so Hart had me wear the foggles nearly the entire first leg until we were 10 miles south of Talkeetna. 

With the strong winds, it was a bit of a challenge to hold the plane at a steady heading and I kept having to make corrections to stay on the 335° radial inbound to the Big Lake VOR, and then the 330° radial outbound as we passed over the station. Our ground speed was also pretty slow going north, which indicated at least a 30-40kt headwind from the northwest. A high pressure to the south was drawing a heavy flow of air over the Alaska Range. 

When we got near Talkeetna, I took the foggles off, listened to the AWOS and began my descent to the airfield. I dropped into the pattern and announced my turns on the common frequency, l looked down to see the windsock and realized that there would be a slight wind coming down the runway. As I came around on final, it turned out to be a bit more turbulent than expected and I had to pay very close attention to my airspeed indicator and adjust my power accordingly. My touchdown on what turned out to be a VERY icy, slick runway was actually incredibly soft and smoothly executed. I waited until the plane had slowed way down before touching the brakes and turning off.

Since I needed 3 more landings to fulfill my night requirement, we taxied back and did two more takeoffs and landings. Those two were not nearly as good as my first one and I found myself fighting the bumpy air a bit more, especially on final. During both approaches, I heard the stall warning start to sound before I was over the end of the runway, which indicated that my airspeed was dropping too low. I managed to add enough power to prevent the stall and landed ok, but it was a good lesson in the importance of maintaining airspeed all the way until you’re over the runway. You can always bleed off speed later, but you DO NOT want to stall on final. 

Departing Talkeetna, we climbed to 5,500 feet and began our return flight to Anchorage. As we climbed, the wind calmed way down. We could see the lights of Anchorage from all the way up here and so navigating back was relatively easy. I did have trouble maintaining my altitude, though. I’ve had problems with this before, it seems to be the one thing I struggle with the most on certain flights, and so I’ll really have to work on paying attention to this detail during my next few hours.

Once back at Merrill, I did one full stop landing using only 10° of flaps and a forward slip on final. It was my first time practicing a slip and it ended up being a pretty hard landing. There was also a bit of a crosswind, so I had to correct for that as well. I used up alot of the runway getting it down and touched down pretty hard on all three wheels, so my instructor suggested that I try another one to end the night on a good note. My second landing was much better and so we taxied back to the hangar and called it good.

Tonight, I learned quite a bit about wind correction while navigating by VOR, and of course, learned that I need to keep paying attention to my altitude with quick scans across the instrument panel. This is especially important at night, when you don’t have the same visual cues to help you orient yourself.

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