Night Flight to Monterey

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A night instrument flight in a light, general aviation airplane, from San Jose to Monterey in California is described.

Submitted: May 24, 2012

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Submitted: May 24, 2012

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Night Flight to Monterey

Flying at night is so unlike flying during the daytime. Even moving from the hanger to the runway, you know it’s going to be different. The airport is a blaze of color. The taxiway lights are a deep, resonant blue, and the runway lights are brightest white. The runways have green lights at one end, red lights at the other. So, you know if the runway has red lights at the end you’re coming at, you’ve made a small mistake in your flight planning. Flashing strobe lights on airplanes and the rotating beacon on the control tower add to the effect of being in an alien hell-world, with slowly moving metallic monsters, feeding at the terminals.

And, it’s quiet. Flying at night is surprisingly silent – well practiced movements, well-oiled processes. It’s soundless – as if the airport is carpeted - and peaceful and soothing. The sharp crackle from the radios and the occasional engines at full power for takeoff only add as counterpoint as the calm floods back. The daytime rush and stress and urgency is absent at night, even the controllers are relaxed – friendly, even.

We lift off. It’s a fairly clear night at first, but there are some clouds over by the hills. It’s dark, so we can’t see the sky, just the lights of San Jose spread in all directions. Cars filling up the streets as people rush home to their wives and families for dinner and an evening before the box. And I’m happy to be in a light airplane, setting off on an adventure – who knows what trouble I’m going to get myself into? I think again, how difficult it is to describe the so-different feelings and experiences of night instrument flying to people – who will understand?

As we climb out into the inky black sky, the lights of San Jose are winking out. Whole areas of lights just disappear. A power cut perhaps? A rolling blackout? It is clouds moving in over the area – we’re above them now but we can’t see them. Soon, all below is cloud – like a dark gray layer of smoke – we’re cut off. Part of, but separated from, the world trapped beneath.

Richard is flying this leg – we’ll take it in turns to fly tonight. He doesn’t look outside – no point – he just concentrates on keeping the airplane in flight using the instruments. A moment’s inattention could put us into a ‘graveyard’ spiral, requiring an immediate recovery which many aviators before have failed to accomplish.

I am free to look outside however – the scene is very different. From the ground, clouds are remote, unreachable mysteries – things to write poems about – things that have silver linings – things that obstruct our view. In flight, clouds are things we touch, pass through, get close and intimate with. The clouds now completely cover the view below, from horizon to horizon. The top of Mt Umanhum floats like an island in a dark gray sea. Lots of antennas, but no base! Over there, Gilroy is located by the eerie pink glow from the street lights below the clouds.

We switch to the Monterey controller – he asks us to descend. Richard complies, looking only at his instruments. Suddenly, the cloud tops are only feet below us. The sensation of speed is incredible, rushing along at 200 miles an hour over an unbroken smooth blanket -–like floating above a rushing bed. I almost find myself looking to see if anybody’s feet are sticking out. The clouds get closer, closer and wham! We’re in them. And they’re bumpy. As if there’s lumps of clouds that the airplane has to climb up and drop over, but we know it’s only harmless currents of rising air.

The airplane strobe lights make the propeller appear to stop. This can cause vertigo – I ask Richard to switch the strobes off. Nobody can see them in clouds anyway.

The world has been turned off. We float along in a calm silence. There is no feeling of speed, no feeling of movement – just the occasional bump to remind us that we’re not dead. We can see absolutely nothing outside the airplane. The feeling of being alone is complete. We are linked to the earth now only by our piloting skills and the occasional instruction from the controller. "Descend to 2000 feet". "Turn to a heading of 030". If for some reason the airplane was to fail us, or if our skills were to prove not up to the task in hand, nobody could save us – we’re on our own. That is why we do this.

We’re now way out over Monterey Bay. Two thousand feet below us are the cold, dark waters that claimed John Denver. I muse on the results of an engine failure out here – we’d go in the drink for certain. How long since I did any long distance swimming? Too long – we would not survive.

More instructions, more descents, more turns. In a fractured moment, we break out of clouds and find Monterey’s brightly lit runway directly ahead – mostly white, but green close up and red at the far end – that’s good!

So, we were moving after all – the instruments weren’t lying to us. Richard is concentrating on keeping two needles crossed. One keeps us heading in the right direction, the other keeps us descending along the correct path.. He’s a bit rusty - the runway floats around the sky – left, right, up, down – Richard is ‘all over the sky’, as we like to call it.

The approach stabilizes and the runway stops jiggling and waits patiently for our arrival. It comes closer and the twinkling blue taxiways appear. Lower, closer, then – minimums! This is the lowest altitude we can descend to without the runway in sight. If we fly straight, we hit the hills off the end of the runway and die. If we turn right, we hit the hills there, and die. If we turn left, we hit the hills and die. We have to land, or perform a climbing turn to the left to regain the safety of altitude.

The runway is right there in front of us, but we’re practicing, so Richard applies full power, raises the gear, banks to the left and lifts the nose – we go straight back into the pink cotton candy clouds for another practice approach.

Now, this is the hairy bit. We’re low, we’re slow, we’re dirty and we’re maneuvering. And, we can’t see anything. 200 feet is very low – there are lots of things poking up 200 feet and more from the ground. We’ll be ok if we climb and turn and don’t lose the airplane. The controller issues instructions – doesn’t he know how hard this is?

No, he doesn’t, and if he did, sitting there at his warm, ground-bound desk, he wouldn’t care.


© Copyright 2017 Waldorff. All rights reserved.

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