Night Flight Done Right

As a birthday present to my mom, I flew to Lubbock to spend the night and catch a zombie movie. (I loved Warm Bodies!) The challenge was the timing of everything. Let's rewind...

Leading up to the weekend, it was unclear if I would be able to fly at all. US Sport Aircraft was short on airplanes and long on reserved flights. After noting that Sunday would be too windy to come back, my only option was to leave on Friday after work and return Saturday evening. The first challenge was moving my reservation. Luckily, US Sport was able to get another insured airplane added to their reservations and move schedules around. Hooray! US Sport saved the day!

The next challenge was leaving on time Friday. I ducked out of work as quick as I could, packed up, checked the local weather a last time, kissed everyone good-bye then I was off to the airport.

I packed up, preflighted, said siyonara to Kyle then off I went. The takeoff was in the dark and nicely uneventful. For this flight, I was lazy and didn't do the whole written flight plan w/ winds and distances and fuel calculations. I went on a hunch that the GPS would not let me get lost and that my fuel would be plenty. I was right on both fronts, but I still wished I had prepared better. The winds aloft caught me off guard.

Sometime after the bravo shelf when I reached 6500, the winds were stronger aloft than I anticipated and I forgot how slow this airplane was (about 100 knots) so my timing was off. I told my mom I would be in Lubbock around 9pm after a 2.5 hr flight.  Eh, no.  The winds were pushing on me so much, my groundspeed was about 77 knots (88 mph). My flight was actually 3.6 hours. I was a full hour late getting there. My mom was getting very nervous and anxiously waiting for me to call.

Munday, TX was my GPS waypoint between Addison and Lubbock. Sometime after crossing Munday it was so dark I could not tell the horizon from the night sky. I kept my eye carefully fixed on the two most important things at that time: the altitude and the pink GPS line. As I told Rusty after I landed, "I watched that pink line like it was my religion!" I didn't have auto-pilot so I made constant adjustments fighting the wind. I was also freezing cold! I had cabin heat on and a coat but the part of the cabin higher than my lap was still very cold. I had packed gloves but couldn't find them in my luggage during the flight.

When I finally had the airport in sight, I landed in the dark without incident. (This was the first time I had landed at night at this airport.)

I called my mom to let her know I had landed and I could tell she was very relieved.  I tied down the airplane after pushing it into place in the dark without a tow bar. (I love tow bars.  Sooo much easier!)

Fast-forward through the night of wine drinking and girl talk.

I checked the weather forecast the next morning to see if anything had changed. Nope. The forecast for winds on Sunday were still there. I looked online to gauge when the best time would be to leave that day. The most ideal times were morning or night. There was supposed to be moderate winds during the day of 12-16 knots.  If I waited until 9pm or so they were supposed to die down a bit, but I wasn't convinced. There was a low pressure system moving across the far north of the Texas panhandle pulling air towards it. If I left at 9pm I'd be back in Dallas late, which I wasn't keen on.

But I was stuck until things calmed a bit. So my mom and I made the best of it by catching the matinee and going out for a nice late lunch at her new fave restaurant.

While I was sitting at lunch with her, I was facing the traffic outside and could see a flag high up on a building blowing in the wind. It was straight out for much of the time. But sometimes it went limp for a moment. I watched that flag during the entire lunch noting the wind pattern of gusts and time the flag was limp.

I decided during the lunch that I would try to take off during one of those calmer periods. I called a weather briefer again after lunch to get an update. Their information at the time was almost an hour old. The briefer said she didn't have gusts in her current report but I knew differently being outside.

I filled up, kissed and hugged my mom, taxied to the end then waited for the oil temperature to warm up. While I idled, I watched the grass near the run-up. I was too far away to see the wind sock but I could see the grass and feel the airplane shimmy when a strong gust blew.

Then, it happened.  Winds started to die a bit. I took that as my cue! I quickly lined up then put full power in. Normally these airplanes rotate at about 42 knots but I kept it down until nearly 60 to make sure I had plenty of speed. As soon as I lifted up, I crabbed probably 20° into the wind.

I loudly woo-hooed myself then focused on the upcoming crosswind turn.

The flight home was much faster: it was the normal 2.5 hours without drama. I was hoping to be back before everyone left US Sport but I landed in the dark again.

Lessons I Learned: 

  • Don't shortcut the planning. I didn't plan well enough for the winds from ADS to Lubbock. Luckily I had plenty of fuel. But I realize now that it could have been a dangerous decision with different margins for fuel.
  • Use all information available. Even if it's grass.
  • Don't let fear impact safe choices. Looking back, I didn't have a compelling reason to leave when I did. I had a fear of being stuck that clouded my decision-making.
Flight home from Lubbock during sunset.

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