The air takes me into its realm. Night envelops me entirely, leaving me out of touch with the earth, leaving me within this small moving world of my own, living in space with the stars.Beryl Markham
Here’s what is required per 14CFR §61.109(a)(2), and we aaaaaaaaaaalmost got it done.
My CFI decided we would do cross-country flight to another airport, where we would make one full-stop landing. We would then take off and head back to FRG where we would try to knock out 9 more full-stop landings. If we timed it right, we could fulfill all of the night flight requirements in one flight!
Getting Lost (Or Trying Not To)
He let me pick the destination, which excited me more than should be appropriate. We’ve been flying the length of Long Island throughout training, so I wanted a taste of something different. I also wanted the challenge of flying at night over the limitless mass of the continental United States. Over Long Island, it is almost impossible to get lost. Like a devil and angel (or two cold, cold devils), the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound are always over one shoulder or another, while the jagged spires of the city serve as the same sort of landmark that filled Oregon Trail migrants with dread. Warning, here be obstacles, complex Class B airspace, and FAA violations. Being bounded by these kept me safe but restless. All of the textbooks speak of “lost procedures”: fodder for flyover-country student pilot nightmares, but something that makes my heart race. I buzz around my little island and yearn for the wide open spaces of the coterminous U.S. Give me endless plains of Kansas wheat or Texas dirt any day, let me squint at my map and buzz watertowers to see the town names painted on the sides. Ah! Here I am! Dime Box, Texas! It says so on the water tower! I exaggerate… But if we flew north, I would get the experience of figuring out where I was while flying over (seemingly) neverending land, rivers, trees, and hills. AT NIGHT. Who doesn’t love a good challenge?
My CFI had mentioned Stewart International (SWF) before, and I was intrigued. SWF is a former Air Force base and current commercial airport/Air National Guard base. Unimaginably large cargo planes use SWF: previously C-5 Galaxies, now C-17 Globemasters. All of this means that SWF has one of the looooooooooooooooooooooooongest runways in the area. ELEVEN. THOUSAND. FEET. Now, longer runways don’t test and improve your skills as much as short runways do, but I just wanted to see this thing. Especially at night, with all of the lights. I love me a spectacle. So, I told my CFI we were going to SWF.
We did the pre-flight at sunset, and brought the airplane to life just as the earth was rolling over into bed. To lift away from the earth and have recognizable features shrink into an abstract pattern of lights is a disconcerting, if beautiful, thing. We quickly found ourselves surrounded by fellow night-travellers; we were trying to pick up Flight Following from New York Approach and I realized we were flying right through the approach path for LaGuardia. The radio was buzzing with constant traffic advisories for fast-moving jets; non-stop staccato chatter with a New Yawk flavor piercing the darkened Cessna cabin.
The sun had gone down, the moon was up, the ground was aglow, and we were on our way. Slipping quietly over ponds and lakes, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the reflected moonlight streaking across the water. A shimmering flash, like an enormous fish shaking his tail in salute. We crept further away into the darkness, away from the glowing dome of the city, feeling like we had escaped from some tedious responsibility.
For having such a huge runway, SWF was surprisingly difficult to pick out of the dark. In fact, a lot of things were difficult to pick out in the dark. Including the ground – at least where there were no lights. As we were descending towards SWF over a stretch of unpopulated hills, it was quite a shock to realize that the black hole way below us wasn’t actually that far below us. We reached down to taste the ground again, but unfortunately sometimes the ground reaches for you just as earnestly, trying to reestablish the connection you’ve held since birth. Some lighted towers gave me reference points, but I learned a good lesson here on how hard it is to see terrain at night.
We lined up for runway 27, which was as long, illuminated, and spectacular as I could’ve hope for, when we heard a C-17 doing practice touch-and-goes on the intersecting runway 16. Playing with the big boys is so much fun. We landed and stopped on the runway, watching as he lumbered through the intersection in front of us, and then lifted back off to head back towards FRG.
Racing The Clock
The plan was to get back to FRG and knock out as many landings as we could before I had to catch my train back to the city. What a tragedy, to have the freedom of flight bound to something as dispassionate as a train timetable! Once we arrived at FRG, no one was around, so my CFI got permission from the controller to shorten our traffic pattern. We turned crosswind early and made glorious curving short approaches from downwind to base to final, cutting short the normal pattern and gliding down right over some of the hangars on the field. It demanded precision and attention, but at the same time I felt like a renegade, sliding down out of the night on silent wings to use the airport as my own personal playground. We completed landing after landing, but eventually time ran out and the dream ended.
I wish I could adequately describe the disappointment and peaceful silence that accompanies the end of a night flight, but I think I’ll let Beryl Markham work some more of her magic here:
“There is of absolute finality about the end of a flight through darkness. The whole scheme of things with which you have lived acutely, during hours of roaring sound in an element altogether detached from the world, ceases abruptly. The plane noses groundward, the wings strain to the firmer cushion of earthbound air, wheels touch, and the engine sighs into silence. The dream of flight is suddenly gone before the mundane realities of growing grass and swirling dust, the slow plodding of men and the enduring patience of rooted trees. Freedom escapes you again, and wings that were a moment ago no less than an eagle’s, and swifter, are metal and wood once more, inert and heavy.”Beryl Markham
Here’s what we ended up with:
We didn’t finish the requirements, but it means I get to go up again at night with my CFI, so I’m not too disappointed. He knows I am advancing quickly through training, and he is helping me be as efficient as possible about it. But, we both appreciate that every hour in an airplane with an instructor is incredibly valuable, so I won’t be disappointed to have more.