Last night I got a chance to fly again, the first time I was the flying pilot since February 14th. An instructor and I piled into my airplane for a ride to Tipton, then over to Martin State, and back to Gaithersburg. It had been a long time since I had done any kind of night landings; the FAA requires that pilots perform three landings at night to a full stop in order to carry passengers in the dark. My goal was to get current, and to gain some valuable experience.
The flight started off tough: I was rusty and it showed. My instructor had asked me to use pilotage – a form of navigation by visual identification of landmarks – as our way of getting to the first airport. This is hard enough during the day and extremely difficult at night; I was able to pick out the shopping center in Olney but not much else.
My first approach was tough, and I chose to go around. Because of where Tipton is in proximity to Baltimore International Airport, it has Bravo airspace sitting above the airport at 1,500 feet. In the climb, believing that I had exceeded that ceiling, I attempt to descend, only to have my instructor point out that I was actually at 500 feet, not 1,500 feet. Combined with the featureless landscape around the airport, I had no idea that I was so low. Thankfully, I avoided being a controlled flight into terrain accident, but it was a lesson in paying close attention to the instruments, and in the challenges of transitioning from visual flight to instrument flight.
After I settled in and made my landing at Tipton, we headed up to Martin State, which is a 7,000 foot strip with a control tower. We made three landings there, to gain practice and to meet a certificate requirement (pilots are required to have 10 takeoffs and landings in the dark at a towered airport for their commercial certificate). My landings continued to improve, and I was actually impressed at how easy I found it to identify the airport and land.
We headed back to Gaithersburg, where I made perhaps the best landing of the night, aided by the fact that Runway 14 was the only runway with an operational landing light system.
In all, I feel much more comfortable with my night operations skills, and I look forward to getting some extra night training to feel very confident flying in the dark. Night flying is some of the best kind of flying, because it’s smooth, the winds are calm, and the sights are beautiful. Plus, at night there are fewer storms to deal with. Leaving at night offers the ability to depart after work. The more night landings I do the better I’ll get at them. Soon, I’ll be taking my first night solo!