I last flew at night in 2012. I was just out of flight training. We aren’t planning to fly at night during our cross country vacation to Utah, but it seems prudent to refresh my skills.
I picked Saturday, May 18, to practice because the full moon should illuminate the ground. I also picked Saturday because it wasn’t raining, a rarity this spring. Unfortunately, it was still too cloudy for the moon to help at all.
I took off from Brookline at 9PM, an hour after sunset, and flew over to Nashua. Why Nashua? It lights up like a Christmas tree. I don’t know the names for all the lights. It has blue lights along the taxiways, white runway lights, a solid green bar at the threshold, a two thousand foot long grid of white light before the threshold, and a flashing sequence of arrows before that. Most critical other than the runway lights, Nashua has a PAPI. The PAPI is a set of four lights that guide you down the approach slope. Each light turns white if you are above it’s target angle and red below. A good glide path for a small airplane has the two highest angle ones red and the two lowest white.
The other advantage of Nashua is if you miss the first 2,000 feet of runway, the length of Brookline, there’s another 2,000 feet. And if you miss the second 2,000 feet, there’s yet a third 2,000 feet of runway.
I flew my approach 10 knots faster than earlier in the day when I was practicing STOL landings. 65kts instead of 55kts. I focused on the PAPI. 2 red, 2 white, 65 knots, runway straight ahead. Once I crossed the threshold, I arrested my descent to almost level and waited.
First one big tire touched, squished, and pulled right. I wasn’t quite straight. I corrected. Then the other big tire touched and pulled left. I adjusted the rudder back right a smidge, and rolled out smoothly.
Not bad for my first night landing.
Finding taxiway Charlie in the dark was harder than I expected. From above, the blue lights clearly outlined each taxiway. From the ground, it was hard to tell which spaces between blue lights were the travel path and which marked the edge. It might have been easier in a tricycle gear airplane where I could see both sides at once. Instead each time I weaved back and forth to see around the Bearhawk’s nose, I lost situational awareness. About half way back I got the hang of taxiing and started thinking about my next takeoff. That’s when I realized I could have just used the remaining four thousand feet of runway to take back off from where I had landed. I opted to cut over at taxiway Delta and depart from there.
The takeoff was uneventful. I departed towards Nashua. The city lights outlined the contours of the ground and made it easy to avoid disorientation.
On the second landing, my goal was to do as well as the first landing, but keep my heading straighter. This time descending on final I noticed the airplane gently bobbing and rolling. Was I over controlling the plane without visual references? Or was the wind pushing me around?
I followed the PAPI down as before. This time when I crossed the threshold, I was more confident of my height and started a conventional flare. Thunk. I hit the ground and bounced back up. I was so focused on the dark that I blanked on the bounce recovery procedure. I added a hint of power to give myself a chance to think before the inevitable drop back onto the ground. I decided I couldn’t stabilize my descent in the dark. Instead, when the wheels touched, I picked up the tail and pressed the main wheels into the ground. The Bearhawk rolled to a stop. The good news is on first and second contact with the ground, the wheels rolled smoothly straight ahead.
On both my first and second attempts, I had landed left of the centerline. My goal for my third landing was to touch and roll out on center, not bounce, and land straight.
On final, I focused so hard on not drifting left that my speed dropped to 55kts. I landed with a bounce, not as big as the previous bounce, but still a bounce. And I was squarely on the right hand side of the runway, the centerline under my left wing tip. Enough, I decided. Time to head back home.
My recollection from 2012 of flying into Brookline at night is that you aim for where you think the airport ought to be, and then spend a lot of time wondering where it is. Russ, my primary flight instructor, had taught me an approach that had always worked:
- fly west from Milford to the end of the lights on RT 101.
- turn due south over the brightly lit Irving at the junction with Wilton Rd.
- maintain 2,000 feet MSL until you positively identify Brookline and you intersect the VASI.
- Follow the inverted VASI down until you can see the ground north of Babb Swamp. That’s where the VASI becomes useless because the two beams cross.
- Fly short final using the dim runway lights and your plane’s landing light.
Over the Irving, I clicked the mic to turn the lights on, an art in itself given how finicky the receiver can be. To my amazement I spotted the runway lights immediately. Someone must have fixed the broken ones and replaced all the light bulbs with bright LEDs. Once on the VASI slope, I focused on maintaining 65kts. I kept checking for ground below me to make sure the VASI hadn’t sagged out of alignment. The trees showed up when and where they should. I touched down smooth and straight.
Thinking about my landings later I realized a few things:
- The times I bounced, I probably tried to level off by only bringing the nose up. I needed to adjust my descent rate by adding power.
- I should cross check more instruments early on takeoff. I was too busy below 500 feet AGL adjusting flaps and power to check anything other than airspeed and power. I need to also be checking rate of climb and attitude/turn rate.