Learning to Fly – Day Twenty (Descent into darkness)

I was asked to plan a night cross country. From Winter Haven we would go north to Leesburg, from there to Zephyrhills and then back to Winter Haven. I had to do touch and go landings at all airports. Planning the trip I realised the first leg would take us within 2 miles from the Villa the family was staying at. However, we couldn’t really drop by; it would sort of ruin the plan, not to mention the plane. Night flying cross country requires a lot of preparation. The checkpoints you chose along the way have to be different. You can’t use small lakes (They are just as black as fields) or even big roads if they are unlit. However, it’s easier to use radio-towers or villages and so it goes. I also studied the radio navigation needed if we got lost and the runways at all the airports so I knew how to approach each airport in order to join at the correct 45° to downwind. The first leg was uneventful. I missed the 1st and 3rd way point but that was really to be expected. The last bit before arriving at Leesburg is a rather big lake. This means you fly over absolute nothingness – just a black void – and you have to descend for a long final on to the RW in use which begins where the lake ends. Man, you have to trust your instruments. There’s no way you can see if you are 100, 200 or 500 feet above the surface of a lake. I landed, reasonably well if I have to say it myself (in cross winds), took off again and we were on the way to Zephyrhills. Gerry could comfortably sit back and relax having the privilege of the control and view of the GPS while I was sweating trying to make it on visual clues. Gerry pointed stuff out along the way: There’s traffic (other aircrafts) there, there are 3 towers together – can you see them on the map – there’s a mining area lit by night. Suddenly he said: “Are you OK in the rain?” “What rain?” “*That* rain” he said and shone the torch light on the windscreen… the rain was pouring down on the airplane. It looked no different to me with all the lights off and I hadn’t noticed. We got to Zephyrhills; another touch and go, and it was back to Winter Haven. We could see Lakeland on our right as we approached Winter Haven and I had the same paranoia feeling of being surrounded by maniacs in aircrafts with no radio (maybe no lights) just waiting to hit me. We landed safely at Winter Haven and all though it was getting late, Gerry wanted me to start doing patterns. So after more than 1 hour of cross country we did over ½ hour of night landings. The first 2 had been pretty poor. Gerry then did 1 and went off to do another. I felt angry at myself. “I have control” I said (Which is not really something a student says). Gerry looked surprised but was pleased to give me control. I did a relatively good pattern and a pretty good landing/touch-go and we were off again. Another good pattern and good approach and Gerry said: “Make it full stop”. I knew why… Full stop and I turned to Gerry and told him “You want me to do solo landings now, right? But I’m not doing it”. He said “Yes, and why not?” The only answer I could give was: “I’m not comfortable”. I wasn’t. 15 knots wind coming in at 40° from the left didn’t help. So there it was. Gerry later over a beer (on the day I left to go back to the UK, actually) told me that this was the most frustrating time for him during the whole instruction. He knew I could do it, he had seen me do it; he didn’t understand why I wouldn’t. To his credit, I had no inkling of his frustration at the time. My feeling was: I’m 40; I’m sure of myself; assertive. If I don’t feel safe and comfortable doing something… I’m not doing it. But was I ever? If I didn’t, I wouldn’t get my FAA license and I obviously wouldn’t get my CAA night rating either. The FAA rating would be a bummer but the way I felt at the time I wasn’t concerned about the night rating. I would never fly voluntarily at night anyways!

Summary after 20 days:
Flown: 2:24
Total flying time: 52 hours and 33 minutes.
Solo: 10 hours 42 minutes.
Day 1Day 18Day 19Day 20Day 21Day 22Day 23

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