Minnesota Flyer - Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

Ordained Minster Sharpens Night Flying Proficiency

 

February 1, 2021



The reason behind the flight was simple enough, my night currency had lapsed and with Minnesota winters comprised of short days and long nights, I decided that it was a prudent move to take a solo night flight.

Not just for the sake of being able to carry passengers an hour after the sun sets, but also to make sure I stay proficient as a pilot.

I noticed that my currency had expired not long before tonight, as I had made plans to take some friends on their first flight in a private airplane a few days ago and it had become a factor. My friends are getting married to each other next month, and as an ordained minister I have been asked to perform the service. We were to meet at Princeton Municipal (KPNM) and fly to Richard Bong airfield in Superior, Wisconsin (KSUW) where we would discuss the particulars of their wedding service over lunch before heading back to Princeton.

However, Mother Nature intervened with a low overcast layer that decided to remain stationary for the bulk of the day. As a VFR pilot still working on my instrument rating, I was held captive on the ground until mid-afternoon. So much for lunch.

By the time I was finally able to fly to Princeton to pick them up, we had enough time to fly over the Duluth/Superior harbor and back, but stopping for a meal would certainly push our return flight beyond civil twilight. Knowing I was close to hitting the 90-day window on my farthest-out night landing, I pulled my logbook out of my flight bag for some quick research and of course my night currency had lapsed by two days. Two days!

But, rules being rules, I briefed my passengers on the change in flight plan; we would fly over the harbor, circle out over Lake Superior to take in the view, and head back without lowering the landing gear until we had returned to Princeton. The flight went off without a hitch – not only did we make it back before nightfall, but one of my passengers asked enough questions to entertain his curiosity on becoming a private pilot! We were able to casually discuss the upcoming wedding ceremony as the earth passed by underneath our wings.

Fast forward to tonight. After days and nights of continuous fog, there was finally a break in the weather and skies were crystal clear. Temps were in the mid-30s, and winds were dead calm. A perfect night to fly!

The Cessna 182 was parked in the hangar, complete with pitot tube cover, cowl blanket, and Tanis heater plugged in. A club airplane, it had landed a half hour prior, and the only indication that the airplane had just been flown was the warmth still radiating from the engine compartment. Topping the fuel tanks off after pre-flight, the engine was still warm and ready for runup.

Checking the ADS-B while holding short of the runway, I noticed there were more airplanes up in the sky than I had anticipated. Apparently I wasn’t the only one seeking to take advantage of the good weather, and I was excited to join their company up above. Intentions announced over CTAF, I pointed the nose down Runway 18 of Buffalo Municipal (KCFE) and advanced the throttle. Density altitude was reported at negative 990 feet and within a few seconds I was climbing into the crisp night air, the smooth songful rhythm of the engine welcoming me back home.

There is a certain peace I feel while flying. It is a feeling unlike any other that I have experienced, and in my over 40 years of existence I have not found that feeling anywhere on the ground. For example, on my drive home from work this same day, my mind was abuzz with a multitude of topics; debriefing the work day and planning for the next, concern over my daughter’s algebra grade, the status of a bathroom remodel and what materials I will need in the coming days, dinner plans, what was that song that was just on the radio?

None of these things cross my mind while flying. All of it stays on the ground. Not to be ignored, as they are important items to think about; but they are seemingly content to wait patiently while I am away in the sky, leaving me to focus on something completely different – flying the airplane.

A cruise over my hometown of Monticello, a flyover at the house to hopefully get a smile out of my wife, and I turn around to head back up Highway 10, following the road up to St. Cloud. Only needing one landing for currency, I decide to do three landings anyway for the sake of ensuring I maintain proficiency. It’s a calm night and the lights reflecting off of the winter landscape paint a tranquil portrait of the earth sleeping peacefully under its blanket of snow, hibernating silently as she waits to be awakended by the warmth and new life of spring.

Nearing the KSTC Class D airspace, I pick up the weather and verify my range to the airport. Perfect, the airfield is 10 miles west, right where it was the last time I was there. Shifting my eyes back outside the cockpit, I key the mike and hear my voice: “St. Cloud Tower, Cessna 12345 is 10 miles west at three thousand with Tango, inbound for the option on Runway 13.”

I realized the error before my thumb had even fully let go of the transmit button. In looking at the GPS, I had relayed the airport’s position relative to my airplane, not my position relative to the airport – they were 10 miles WEST of my position, which meant that I am 10 miles EAST!

The controller beats me to the punch: “Cessna 12345, report right base for 13.”

My face as red as the cockpit lights, I reach back out: “St. Cloud Tower, Cessna 12345, correction, 10 miles EAST of the airport, in position for left downwind for 13.”

The controller was easier on me than I was: “Cessna 12345, no problem, report left downwind for 13.”

Entering downwind, I report in, and I'm cleared to land and grease it in. Well, at least I can do that right! Slowing to a full stop to qualify as a night landing, the 7,500-foot runway is easily long enough to get back in the air. Lifting off moments later, I stay in the pattern for one more stop and go before departing runway heading back toward Buffalo.

The landing back at KCFE is another greaser and completes the hat-trick, and the propeller winds to a stop 1.1 hours after I first engaged the magnetos. Walking back to my truck, I can feel my mind already shifting toward the tasks awaiting me when I arrived at home.

Giving pause for a moment, I put the rush of thoughts aside for a quick second, just long enough to cast a glance up into the peaceful night sky, my lips mouthing the words “Thank you” to the cool air above.

 

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