Lesson 157
12 October 2001
1.1 hours
A Night Flight & A Bad Sight

I finished preflighting N 12902, a rental C-172 just at sunset.  I was a little uncomfortable because the airplane had just come from its 100-hour maintenance, and the Hobbes meter had only 0.1 hour more than the dispatch said, which meant that I was the test pilot.  (It wouldn't be possible to fly it around the pattern even once in 0.1 hour-- 6 minutes.)  So I had looked it over especially thoroughly.  There was no gust lock or pitot tube cover--but of course I wouldn't need them in flight anyway.  The baggage door wasn't latched securely, so I shut it tightly.  Everything else seemed all right. so my son Chris and I climbed in.  Started the engine.  When I flipped on the avionics switch, country music blared at full volume out of the loudspeaker in the cabin ceiling. Huh?  It turned out that the ADF was on and all of the audio panel switches were set to Speaker--probably for a little music in the maintenance hangar.  I flipped them back to headset, turned down the ADF volume, and called unicom for a radio check.  Okay, so far, so good.

We taxied to runway 15 and ran up the engine.  Heavy missing on the left magneto, so I lswitched back to both, stood on the brakes, and gave it full throttle for twenty seconds or so.  That cleared the fouled plug.  Again, everything seemed okay.  I double-checked the check lists and started taxiing to the hold line.  But before we'd gone ten feet, the pilot of an airplane beside us in the runup area came on the radio.

"Niner zero two, better check your baggage door before you go."

Damn.  I did a U-turn, taxied back, another turn, shut it down.  Got out and sure enough, the baggage door that I had shut so firmly was waving in the breeze.  This time I used the key to lock the handle, but the latch still popped open.  I slammed it shut good and hard and when that didn't seem to do the trick, stomped it with my foot.  Again, harder.  Pulled on the latch, but this time it stayed shut.  Everythjing seemed okay.

By that time it was halfway between sunset and civil twilight.  I wasn't current at night, so there was only going to be time for a couple of trips around the pattern before Chris would have to get out.  (I told him I'd land first.)

We took off, stayed in the pattern, and came around to downwind.  Everything seemed to working well this time--except that I couldn't read the instruments.

It was that awkward time of day when it's too dark to read the instruments but still light enough so that the red panel lights are too dim to be seen because the skylight prevents your eyes from adapting to the interior gloom.  You don't notice it on the ground, but a thousand feet up the skylight blinds you to the dim interior.  So I was flying mostly by feel at that point.

Also, there was some bozo's big trash fire about 15 miles SW, pumping smoke into the air.  An inversion kept much of the smoke at about 600 or 700 feet AGL: and the wind was blowing it right over the airport and the city.  The smell was quite strong as we climbed up through it.

Below is a view from another angle.  Both photos are enhanced quite a lot because it was so dark.  The photo below was taken about only about fiveminutes earlier than the top one, but I brightened it more.

Let's back up a bit now.  While I was preflighting, an ultralight-type tandem two place open cockpit high-wing pusher (a Dragonfly, maybe) had taxied from the hangars and taken off with two souls aboard .  It was the first experimental airplane I'd seen that appeared to be based at FCI, so I was pleased to see it--then.

The pilot had been announcing on the radio, but the transmission was so crappy that no one could understand him.  Several other airplanes were in the pattern and two othrs had called in about ten miles out.  So not being able to understand the Dragonfly-thing pilot was a little worse than mildly annoying.  The first transmission from him that Iunderstood any of came justa s I was about to turn base.  He said he was on base.  Oh-oh.  But we couldn't see him, so to be safe, I extended on downwind and because of the airplanes behind me in the pattern, eventually just left the pattern altogether.  We flew west, then south, and re-entered the pattern on crosswind, with just enough time left to get on the ground before I turned into a bumpkin at civil twilight.

Again, on downwind we could hear the -thing pilot on the radio--that is, we could hear his engine and the wind.  We guessed that he was talking, too.  We were number two for landing after a Bonanza that was on final, making a straight-in approach.  Two airplanes were behind us.  It was almost dark.

We had lost track of the -thing--actually had never seen him in the air at all, just heard his unintelligible transmissions.  Then as we came abeam of the numbers (the end of the runway), Chris spotted him--just his strobe lights--below us and to the left, apparently on base, but very close in and at maybe 200 feet, or so, AGL.  The Bonanza on final was descending on what seemed to be a normal approach, and appeared to be going to hit the Dragonfly-thing.  I didn't know whether to say something on the radio, or not, fearing that I might step on their transmissions--which I thought should be coming any instant.  Finally, just as I was about to key the mic, the Dragonfly-thing made an abrupt left turn and uttered some kind of transmission and the Bonanza breezed by, missing him by--well, it was impossible to tell by how much, but it couldn't have been by much.

After I dropped Chris off, he saw the -thing taxiing back toward the hangars--two guys very lucky to still be alive.  I don't know if the bonanza pilot ever saw the -thing but if he did, I hope he found those guys and spoke to them.  I may go looking for them, myself.

I went back up and did three more landings to a full stop.  Two of the three were lousy--not really because the landing light was pointed down so severely that it was useless, but because I was out of practice.  The second-last landing was pretty good--smooth and smooth and I held it off until the main gear just sort of hissed on the concrete.  Once it got REALLY dark, I could read the instruments, but that just made me cocky, and the final landing was one that I could almost count twice.  But it was a landing, and now I'm current at night again.

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