Night flying refresher… to Burbank!

Flying at night can be magical. The air is often smooth, winds die down, and there are fewer other planes out there. In L.A., a glittering carpet of colored lights spreads out beneath you. The city is transformed.

But flying at night is also challenging. It’s a skill that should be practiced and maintained. Recently I realized that it had been almost two years (!) since I flew at night, and it was high time for me to dust off some rust. So I set up a lesson with my instructor in which we decided to fly to Burbank and practice some landings there. The day of the lesson, the plane I’d booked was taken off the line for some maintenance, so I switched to a different plane that I hadn’t flown in over a year. Oh well – it’s still a Cessna 172, so who cares, right? (Except that its avionics are entirely different…)

Here is Burbank (Bob Hope) at night (awesome time-lapse video):

Credit: trekandshoot

More accurately, this is Burbank’s runway 8, the one often in use by commercial jets. When we arrived, we were assigned to the crossing runway 15, which you can barely see poking out to the right. It is even harder to find runway 15 when you’re in the air and bouncing around in a surprising amount of turbulence.

My goal was to polish up my skills in night navigation and operations. But I kept getting extra curve balls thrown at me, due to how busy Burbank is (even at night). On our very first landing, the controller asked me to “keep it in close” so we did a short approach. Then we got a “line up and wait”, took off with a crosswind, and switched to runway 8 in hopes of getting less turbulence – whereupon we got to hear those magical words:

“Cessna 326, you are #2 following a 737 on a 4.5 mile final, caution wake turbulence.”

Alaska flight 524 was coming in ahead of us. Meanwhile we were getting jostled around by the consistently turbulent air on downwind (NOT the wake turbulence) which not only makes the plane harder to manage but also makes it hard to keep your hands on the controls! Thank goodness I have a strong stomach.

We did several stop and go landings, in which you come to a complete halt on the runway and then take off again. This is the most efficient way to get several full-stop landings in, but it comes with a curious feeling of vulnerability, like if you stopped your car in the middle of an intersection and then started it up again.

I think it was on my third takeoff that I suddenly added up all of the complexities of this situation:

  • First night flying in almost two years
  • In a plane I hadn’t flown in over a year
  • Through significant turbulence
  • To an unfamiliar airport I’d never visited
  • Which is a class C airport with frequent jet traffic

Excellent learning experience when accompanied by a trusted instructor. Not something to do on your own! Next time I go out at night, I think I’ll visit Brackett or another local airport with a bit of a slower pace. :)

Flying to Twentynine Palms

On April 1, I took my friend Vali for her first flight in a Cessna 172. Vali is a geologist who does a lot of field work in the Joshua Tree area, so we decided to fly to the Twentynine Palms airport (KTNP) which would give us some great aerial views of places she already knows well from the ground.

This was a good chance for me to do some more flying outside of the L.A. Basin. I’ve been working on trying to visit all of the L.A. airports and have now visited 17 of 26 (!). But it’s good to get some longer flights in and more experience with new locations.

Chino Hills with spring green and yellow flower fields

Starting from El Monte, we flew southeast to the Paradise VOR (PDZ), then east through the Banning pass at 7500′. That’s high enough to have some options for landing, but still below the mountain peaks to the north and south, yielding some dramatic views.

Mt. San Jacinto, south of the Banning Pass

We also got a good view of the San Andreas Fault, just east of Palm Springs.

San Andreas Fault

We continued on to the Palm Springs VOR (PSP), then turned northeast to head to Twentynine Palms.

At TNP, we found a cute little pilot’s lounge stocked with water, sodas, and snacks (honor system to pay for fridge items). It also has a microwave and a bathroom. Great place to have our picnic lunch!

TNP pilot’s lounge

TNP has the largest and most visible wind tetrahedron I’ve ever seen. It looks like a huge yellow tent and easily spins around to show the current wind direction. Next to it, the windsock looks small and ineffective.

Windsock and wind tetrahedron at TNP

TNP has runway options for north-south or east-west winds. The larger and more improved runway runs east-west, but the winds at the time of our visit were coming from the north, so we took the smaller one. That meant flying downwind south straight at the rising terrain, then turning for a left base entry to runway 35. It’s 3800′ long, which is plenty, but only 50′ wide, compared to 5500′ x 75′ for the more commonly used runway 8/26.

We returned following highway 62 through the Morongo Valley and back west through the Banning Pass at 8500′. I tried to descend a few times as we got closer to the PDZ VOR, but SoCal kept me high to deconflict with traffic. You can see that we didn’t actually reach the VOR but instead did some navigation north around it – SoCal gave us vectors to avoid traffic during that period.

TNP track
Flight track (click to enlarge).

Both flights were great! We got to see some great terrain and to visit a new airport. It took us about 1.25 hours each way, with a headwind on the way east and a tailwind coming back. It wasn’t a crystal clear day, so there was some distant haze, but still good visibility. One annoyance was that there was light turbulence throughout, which makes the ride a bit less comfortable, but nothing problematic. We overheard someone else coming through the pass who was getting 1000 fpm up- and downdrafts, and we were glad not to have anything that wild!