Night Flight

Home Learning to Fly Flagstaff/Sedona Is General Aviation Safe To Catalina! The First Solo Adios Six Four Romeo


Part of the FAA curriculum for pilots required night flying experience, preferably close to or into Class Bravo. As a budding pilot, one dark evening I sat behind the controls of a single engine, “Piper Warrior” aircraft, tail number 8400A along with my instructor. The plan was to fly out from Chandler Airport to Williams Gateway airport and then to Falcon Field in Mesa and then to Scottsdale Airpark and finally home. Chandler is at the southern extremity of Phoenix, with Williams about 10 miles to the east. Falcon is 10 miles North of Williams and Scottsdale is about 12 miles further northwest, all under the Bravo umbrella extending out of Sky Harbor.

I started up the 4-cylinder 160 HP engine. Most cars are more powerful than that. We taxied to the runway and asked for takeoff clearance and told the controller we are bound for Williams Gateway Airport. “Eight-Four-Zero-Zero-Alpha, Cleared for takeoff, left turn approved” was the response. We sped over the southeast-bound runway as fast as the fan on the nose could pull the plane, and as we reached the dizzying speed of 60 knots (110km/hr) I pulled the nose up and off we went. Suddenly, we are engulfed in darkness and behind us lay the huge expanse of Phoenix, a glittering carpet of lights.

As we made the left turn and pointed east, climbing steadily, the controller called us. “00-Alpha, Frequency change approved, g’day” he said. That was nice of him, as we were still in Chandler airspace and were obligated to be on the Chandler frequency. However, it would be courteous of us, to inform Williams’s tower that we were fast approaching. The permission to switch frequencies allowed us to sever the radio connection with Chandler, fly uncontrolled, and talk to Williams.

Close to the horizon and at the edge of the lighted carpet of Phoenix, I could see a blink of a yellow light, followed a second later by a blink of a green light. That was the beacon of Williams’s control tower. I pointed the plane towards it, and called. “Williams Tower, Warrior 8400-Alpha, approaching from Chandler, about 8 miles west, for touch and go and stay in pattern”. That meant I would fly in, out of the darkness, touch down at Williams, and then take off right away and then come right back for more landings. A perfectly useless maneuver that gave me away as a trainee.

The controller at Williams was a sweet, soft-spoken lady with an Asian accent. “00-Alpha, clear to land, runway 30L, left base entry approved, touch and go, left traffic 30L, altimeter two-niner-niner” was her inviting response. Translated that meant, welcome, come on a shortcut approach making one left turn (as opposed to the complex “full pattern” landings, that are force-fed to trainees) and then cleared to take off, turn left and land again.

The control tower was easy to see, the runway was not. A good guess made me make a left turn correctly and the runway lights shone at me. In the dark, the depth perception goes away, so the glide slope and power setting were pure guesses. The soft thud of the wheels brushing the concrete told me the guesses were right. Retract flaps, full power and off we went. As we climbed and turned left, came the soft voice, “00-Alpha, clear to land, 30L”. After the third takeoff, I told the lady we were off to Falcon. The response was crisp, courteous and helpful, “00-Alpha, fly runway heading, frequency change approved”.

Runway heading from Williams is northwest, almost towards Falcon over a large segment of the city. The big jets were glowing balls of fire, above us, heading to Sky Harbor. We crossed a freeway, shining with a thousand cars of light. Again, I saw the Falcon beacon, well hidden in the midst of the city and managed to find the runway. Three touch and go-s later, off we headed north for Scottsdale.

Scottsdale was harder to find, the controller was grouchy, and the landing pattern was complex. After two touches, I decided to call it a day. Back to Chandler meant grazing Bravo very close. Flying south, about 6 miles east of Sky Harbor was a sight beyond expectations. Three massive runways looked like Christmas decorations, sweeping away from me on the right, so close it looked easy to reach out and touch. The amber glow of the city under us, added to the charm. The big jets dotted the sky in a chain extending into the darkness on the left. We were barely too low and barely too far to be in the jet flight path, but yet the whole scene looked surreal, in 3-D. 

Tired and feeling the effects of stress, we entered Chandler airspace and the tower closed down for the night. Using a visual, uncontrolled approach, as I was about to align for landing, the instructor switched off the entire instrument panel and landing lights.  “Assume you just had an electrical failure, now get us down,” she muttered. Seat of the pants flying got us into a smooth touchdown, concluding a hard to top experience.