Thursday, January 14, 2010

Night Flying

Black. You forget how dark the world can be after living in the city for awhile. There's a streetlight that lives just out front of our apartment, and it's always a bit disarming on the nights that it goes out. But even then it's not truly dark; the city's glow radiates, streaming from inside buildings, carried forward by cars, reflecting back down from the undersides of clouds. When we have power we light up the place, and night becomes, quite literally, a pale imitation of it's true nature.

I love flying into Chicago on a clear night. At 5-10,000 feet, coming in from any direction, it becomes obvious from miles away that it's the work of man. Flat as a billiard table, stretching out for miles, and patterned in a woven grid of light that frays at the North, South, and West edges, but falls off an cliff to the East, over the lake. Especially when coming in from the Western states, this island of light rises in contrast to the land, and land, and more land that's been unceasingly under wing for hours at a stretch. Oriented forcefully N-S, E-W, it opens up a fractal world of ever increasing detail as the plane approaches and descends. I always want the window seat, unless I'm flying with someone who's never seen it before...

It gets even better the smaller you go. These days I do my personal flying in a tiny tin can out of a tiny airport out in the country of Southern Wisconsin. Not too long ago I was scheduled for my first night cross-country, and planned for a round trip to Madison. As this was at the height of summer I didn't depart for the airport until 7:30pm or so, as it was going to be awhile before the sun was finally set. It was perfect. Leaving the city that late, rush hour traffic was over and done with, and the drive was calm with an easy pace and few distractions. I was heading west by the time the sun fell to the horizon, and with a bit of dissipating cloud cover the show was spectacular. I pulled into the airport's parking lot just in time to catch the last of it, and stood there for awhile with a goofy smile on my face, relishing the moment.

Going over my flight plan with my instructor, I realized that I'd fouled up my headings with incorrect use of the plotter, and set about recalculating them with the whiz wheel. By the time I got outside to preflight the plane the sky had darkened, the clouds were gone, and the stars were shining as brightly as I'd ever seen them. That goofy smile was back in force. Taxi, run-up, takeoff, and climb, and we were on our way to Madison. Major navigation waypoints were found by the shine of moonlit lakes from 4,500 feet MSL. The air was so clear I could make out the destination runway from nearly 30 miles out. The runway was equipped with VASI so I had glideslope assistance, and it was wider than the length of most of the runways I'd been landing on. Traffic was non-existant, and we had the sky and the airport to ourselves. The radio felt like Art Bell at 2am. It wasn't Iowa, but it was close.

On the way back in a 3,500 ft cruise, there was a pinkish haze visible to the Southeast, far off in the distance. Visibility was over 100 miles as the haze was from the lights of Chicago, literally lighting up the sky above.

Night flying; it is so choice. If you have the means...

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