Night Cross Country
May 15, 2019
Author: Bianca Yang
I completed my night cross country and checked off the rest of my night flight requirements on Mon, 5/13. The plan for that day was to watch both KCMA and KAPV to see which destination we would try to hit. KCMA, and the rest of the coast were seeing some aggressively low ceilings, so we decided to head to the clear and unwindy Apple Valley for the evening.
Well, the decision was not quite that easy. Technically, ceilings and all that jazz were looking ok when I did reviewed the 1800WxBrief. By the time I got to KEMT and actually looked outside, I realized that there was haze surrounding the mountains. There was also an AIRMET for MOD turbulence from SFC to 12000’. No PIREPs on turbulence, though, so who knows what was actually going on. Clouds seemed to be forming a nice ceiling in the west, so there was a possibility that we might not be able to make it back. I also had passengers, who would have had a say in whether we turned around for sake of turbulence or anything else.
We felt like the risks were not severe enough to stop us from attempting the trip, so we pre-flighted and took off towards the first of several checkpoints: KPOC. The full list was: KEMT –> KPOC –> VPLCC –> (follow the 15 freeway into the mtns) –> VPLCP –> KAPV. So far so good. No turbulence, no unwanted weather, just a bit of traffic that we were being asked to stay below 5000’ for. Our target altitude was 7500, which would give us plenty of margin over the mountains. VPLCC passed by with no issue, then we “took” the 15 up towards VPLCP. We were passed off to Joshua Approach at some point over the mountains. They asked us to get weather info at KAPV and then just shooed us off the frequency. There was no other traffic in the area. Welcome to the high desert. You can get automated weather at KAPV by sending three clicks to the CTAF.
We deviated east of VPLCC towards Apple Valley after being dropped by Joshua Approach. Apple Valley’s only lit runway is 18/36. They do have a beacon, but that beacon is stuffed among the rest of the lights at the airport, so I didn’t see it until I got very close. What I was relying on to navigate was the GPS and the big, bright tower just to the east and north of the airport.
We entered left traffic for 18. At this point, for whatever reason, the runway lights started flashing. My instructor desperately tried to turn them back on, trying combos of 4, 5, and 7 clicks. This is one of those moments when I realized how important sight was. The moment the runway lights went off, all my notions of distance and glideslope flew out the window. I was actually, 100% blind. We finally got the lights back on (7 clicks, I think) and landed smoothly. We taxiied to the only exit off the runway and then followed the blue taxiiway lights to the runway area. I think a CHP airplane was also using KAPV. We were the only two in the area.
After takeoff, we asked for some data on weather south of the mountains from flight services on 122.2. Ceilings were low over Brackett (just over 2000’ BKN) but otherwise clear. We would soon see what this ceiling actually meant.
Before we returned to KEMT, we made a stop at KONT. This was my first experience landing at a class C airport. SoCal had us set up to follow a huge United jet (I think it was United) for landing on RW 26L. They came in high and had to perform some S-turns to get down to altitude. Once we were transferred over to KONT tower, they had us move to 26R. We executed a stop and go on their massive, 2mi+ long runway, making sure to land past the jet’s touchdown point and thus avoid their wake turbulence. After takeoff, we were handed back to SoCal (by choice) and began our westward departure.
This was when we started to see the clouds. To be frank, I don’t think I registered that I was seeing clouds. My instructor started to make some statements about clouds and how we couldn’t see certain things. I just felt lost…(this is one of those flights where I sometimes can feel the limits of my ability and sometimes have the sign of my limits fly over my head… dangerous). Only after we started to get really close to the clouds did my instructor point out the 210, which is when my understanding of local geography meshed a bit better. The clouds were nice and black, which is why I didn’t distinguish them from the rest of the pitch black terrain.
It wasn’t reasonable for us to get back home under VFR so my instructor set up a VOR-A approach to KEMT. I had already had some experience maintaining heading and (blindly) following SoCal’s heading instructions under IMC, so I took care of the actual flying. Once we got to KEMT and out of the clouds, I took another minute to get vaguely reoriented with the beacon and runway 19. We set up for right traffic on 19, crossing over midfield and directly entering downwind. Landing was uneventful.
Overall, the trip was successful. It was scary and mesmerizing to only see the terrain as a black mass. I also misinterpreted wingtip lights on an aircraft on the taxiway as runway or misc. airport lights, which would have been dangerous had my instructor not intercepted and told me to turn to runup. Night flight is definitely fun because the views are spectacular. The air also tends to be smoother and cooler, making the ride more enjoyable. But it will definitely be a while before I get my night vision and skills up to a point where I can do things like this on my own.
Questions, comments? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.