Daily Pilot's Journal

Read the complete day-by-day flight log of an actual student pilot, from the first takeoff to the signing of his private pilot's license. Written promptly at the end of every flight, each entry is completely unedited - detailing the successes, failures, and mistakes we all encounter along this long road.
Day 25 - Flying at Night
Monday, 8/07/06 8:00pm - Scattered clouds, low winds. I'd tried scheduling night flights two other times and both times got rained out. I thought today would be another washout, as thunderstorms were predicted all day and evening. But although it did rain a bit, the sky seemed to clear up after 6pm. I actually called the flight service station for a weather briefing (first time) and was told that things over Long Island looked fairly decent. Stan showed up, we turned on our position lights, and taxied to runway 19.

Our destination today was East Hampton airport, so after demonstrating a short-field takeoff I headed south to the Captree bridge. Immediately we hit some pretty decent turbulence that extended from the ground upwards to about 800 feet. Once at 1,000 feet above the ground the turbulence dissipated but there was a much bigger problem: visibility. The setting sun coupled with the August haze made for some very miserable conditions, and it was all I could do to find the flashing light on the bridge. Stan tuned the radio to 122.2 and spent the next five minutes getting an extensive weather briefing while I struggled to make out Fire Island - our intended route.

Had I been solo at this point I would've certainly turned back to Farmingdale and abandoned the trip. Scattered layers of clouds rolled in beneath us. Conditions were still VFR but at the very limits. Because Stan was with me we continued onward, following the southern shores of Fire Island and tracking inbound on the East Hampton VOR. Stan did all the radio work for Approach Control while I flew the airplane. NY Approach gave us clearance to proceed through Grabeski's airspace so we didn't have to tune into that frequency. Stan also showed me how to get runway and airfield elevation info for East Hampton airport by cycling through the settings on the loran. Up until today I had no clue how to do that.

We had a very respectable tailwind and were making 115kts of ground speed en route to HTO. Stan showed me the autopilot once again and it made things easier. I'll definitely be using it on cross-country trips. Once NY Approach released us we squawked back to VFR (1200) and began looking for the East Hampton airport beacon. Stan had queued up the runway lights using the radio but we still couldn't see them. Visibility was poor, but about eight miles out I spotted the beacon and eventually, the runway lights. Using the UniCom frequency, Stan announced our intentions to land on runway 10.

Crossing the runway, we entered a left downwind. I told Stan we were a bit wide, but he didn't believe me until we got closer. East Hampton airport is in the middle of freaking nowhere. Forests and fields show up as dark spots at night, obliterating any light. It's scary making an approach over that, because even though the threshold of the runway is lit up you really can't see where the ground begins. Stan helped out with the approach and let me take the landing, flipping on the landing light when we got low enough. I made a decent enough flare and touched down, rolling to the end of a much shorter runway than I was accustomed to. Woods surrounded us, and a mist blanketed the asphalt. The whole thing was like something out of a Stephen King novel. Someone crackled incoherently on the UniCom frequency for a brief second or two. I taxied the plane around to take off in the opposite direction, on runway 28. Flaps raised, throttle up, I'm halfway through my takeoff roll when suddenly two deer dart across the runway right to left. It scared the crap out of me but they were at least 50 feet in front of us and not in any danger of being hit. Nevertheless I eased back a little early on the control wheel, bringing us airborne just in case another deer decided to follow them. The stall warning horn sounded and I lowered the nose slightly, but without being able to see where the tree line ended and the sky began totally freaked me out.

Glancing down at my airspeed indicator I could see 80 knots. The VSI showed that I was climbing. Stan seemed calm and it was the one thing that mellowed me out a little bit. I couldn't tell that I was climbing, I couldn't feel that I was climbing, and I definitely couldn't see that I was climbing. For all I know I was plowing right into the trees. The only thing I had to go by was the fact that my instruments showed me gaining altitude, but the lack of vision still frightened me. Eventually, at around 300 feet, I could see some streetlights and cars off in the distance. I relaxed a bit, but the takeoff itself had scared the shit out of me. On one hand it was good to have experienced such a blind ascent, but on the other hand it was way too freaky.

Nighttime view of the approach to Runway 19
Stan informed me that on a normal night, visibility is usually much better. This gave me a little comfort and made me look forward to doing another night flight in clearer conditions. We headed back to Farmingdale, this time directly over the center of the island. At 76 knots of ground speed it was slow going, but the visibility improved somewhat. There were also a lot more lights on Long Island as timers on streetlamps must've kicked in.

Stan radioed Approach and was told to get his own clearance from Grabeski this time. After switching to get clearance, he transferred the radio back over to Approach. I followed the Long Island Expressway all the way back to Republic airport, spotting the beacon without too much trouble and using Adventureland to guide myself into a base leg for runway 19. Flared way too early on the landing, but Stan corrected it by increasing throttle. I still need to work on night landings, but that'll come next time. Conditions were too poor to be doing circuits this night.

Flying hours today: 1.5       Total: 34.5

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