My introduction to night instrument flying

There’s something particularly special about flying at night. As the air cools, it tends to calm, and on a clear night the visibility is stunning.

Sadly, I hadn’t flown at night since leaving California. After moving here, I ran afoul of RAFA’s requirement for night checkouts. See, the FAA has its own set of requirements about what’s known as “night currency.” In order to legally fly with passengers at night, you must have completed at least 3 takeoffs and landings at night during the preceding 90 days. On top of that RAFA requires that you have a RAFA instructor check your night flying technique out. This is immensely complicated by the fact that the Redstone Arsenal airfield currently doesn’t have any working lights, so getting checked out requires moving your plane to Huntsville while it’s light, then putting it back the next day. I just hadn’t been able to get an instructor and an airplane together at the same time, so my FAA currency had lapsed too.

Luckily last Friday I was able to solve that problem. Caroline, one of the RAFA instructors, had posted a picture on Facebook of a night flight she did with a student, and I commented on it, so she responded and told me to let her know when I wanted to fly at night. Challenge accepted! I booked the trusty club 182 for the evening, but it was down with a transponder failure, so I ended up in a 172 with Caroline and her friend Norma, who came along just for fun. Rather than a typical night requalification— 3 circuits around the traffic pattern— we decided to get some instrument practice. After taking off from Huntsville, I put on the foggles and flew us to Cullman,where I did a not-terrible job of flying the GPS approach to runway 20. (More on the various types of approaches and what they mean in a future post). Then I flew us back to Huntsville, where I flew the instrument landing system (ILS) approach to runway 36R. That was much more challenging, I thought, in part because we were getting radar vectors from the controller (a fancy way of saying that he was assigning us headings to fly to line us up with the approach course). After my approach, Caroline flew one while I acted as safety pilot, then I flew another approach and we called it a night (well, except for an excellent dinner, but that’s not really aviation-related).


Norma took this picture upon landing on 36R at Huntsville

Flying instrument approaches at night is no different than flying them during the day: the airplane doesn’t know it’s night, and you’re either flying in clouds or using a view-limiting device that keeps you from seeing outside in any event, so you stay focused on the instruments and fly the approach. Despite the fact that there shouldn’t be a difference, I really enjoyed the night approaches and look forward to doing it again… and again and again, since getting really good at instrument landings is kinda the whole point of getting your instrument rating.

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