Monday, October 8, 2012

The beauty of the night

Before I finished the RV-7A, I rented Piper Warriors from the FBO at an airport 45 minutes away. For more than 15 years -- basically, when I had my flight training which required some night work -- I hadn't flown at night; it just wasn't practical.

But I've got freedom now. I can fly whenever I want, money allowing, of course and I've chosen to get proficient at night flying. Plus, it's a beautiful time to fly.

A few weeks ago, Carolie and I flew down to Mankato for her birthday (about 60 miles away) for a Trampled by Turtles concert in the park by the Minnesota River. It was beautiful. Oh, here, let me digress...

By time we made it back to the airport, of course, it was dark. It was also near midnight. I'd flown the route down and back (at night) the night before, so I was pretty familiar with how the route "looked."

And it was a gorgeous ride back. The sky was empty of traffic, the radio was quiet, the air was smooth as the polka dotted-light landscape of the plains gave way to the lights of the city.

I've made great landings in the RV-7A since I started flying it and since Tom Berge taught me how, but I make consistently terrific landings at night. I think it's because the landing/taxi lights are perfectly adjusted to give me visual clues for the flare and roundout.

Last night was no exception. Carolie was working at the transition house, so I spent the evening repacking the wheel bearings. Once finished, of course, I had to see how the wheels rolled.

After topping off the tank ($5.75 a gallon now), I headed for the runup, mindful of the lessons I learned Saturday while watching Mike Busch's excellent EAA webinar on leaning technique. He says the runup should be with a leaned-out engine.

And that gave me another reason to go flying: To practice leaning techniques.

So I took off into the night sky of the Twin Cities and headed for Red Wing, 26 miles away along the Mississippi River.

There's no question, flying at night is riskier, even as it's more beautiful. You have to be ready for the reality that greets you when you level off: If the engine quits, you're probably screwed.

I knew there were plenty of farm fields in the blackness below, dotted only occasionally by a farmhouse or two. I also knew they were on bluffs and very uneven land. That dark spot to the right? The Mississippi River. As always, I play a game of "what if the engine quit now?" and I debated whether it'd be better to put down near the shore in the river? Or head for the mystery field below. The mystery field won.

But the engine was purring along and my computer was recording the Grand Rapids EIS 4000 data as I played with the mixture knob most of the way (it'd be great if the EIS saved data for download later, but it doesn't). Airspace and practicality doesn't allow me to fly any higher than 3,000 feet MSL on this route, but I found that peak occurs at around 8.5 GPH and 2400 RPM and I could lean it out to about 6.5 GPH 70 degrees LOP, which is probably a bit too much. The airspeed indicator said I was doing about 130 or so knots. The GPS ground speed indicator said I was running about 148 knots. That's not bad.

The cylinder head temperatures were about 360 in the 53 degree night air, the oil temperature was 165. Everything was fine and me and N614EF were learning more about each other.

A landing at Red Wing (perfect, of course) with just a second of spatial disorientation on the base leg (hop on the instruments!) was followed by an uneventful return trip (with a perfect landing, of course).

I wouldn't fly long distances at night, but Minnesota in winter is nothing if not dark. It will be impossible to stay proficient at any kind of flying here without flying at night; and staying proficient is important.

So is the beauty of the night.

1 comment:

  1. Completely agree about the beauty of being up at night, looking down...of course, you write it much better than I could. I've been timing my test flights to land back at Red Wing just after sunset, since I'm not yet allowed to fly at night...very neat watching the sun go down, as the lights on the houses below start to blink on. I've not yet been able to capture it in a photo, at least with my cell phone camera.

    Saturday night, the skyline of Minneapolis was silhouetted against the orange sunset quite clearly from 3500', 50nm away; rather impressive sight after some of the hazy days of late.

    11 more hours in the box...