“Night Flight”

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Cirrus Mini-Adventure: The Red Cocoon

OK So I had been working almost non-stop on X-Plane 8.00 except for sleeping for about 2-weeks and light planes need to be flown about every 2 weeks to keep the engines from rusting so at the end of a workday when I was sort of frazzled, but too frazzled to fly, it was time to warm up the plane.

Of course it was 3 AM, since that is what time I quit coding when I feel like knocking off early when it’s crunch-time.

3 AM is a nice time to drive and fly in South Carolina… you have the roads, highways, airports, and airways all to yourself.

Hardly seeing a car out to the airport, the Vette (2005 C-6) purred as it always does (sort of a smooth purr that turns into a roar above 3500 rpm). Anyway, it was pretty cold out (40?) and I had no jacket so pre-flighting the airplane in the dim light of the hangar was pretty chilly. A quick pull-out into the frigid night air and and into the cockpit for the familiar sensations of night-flight: You can’t see much out the window. Everything you need better be accessible IN THE COCKPIT. The defrost on light planes is pretty poor, and the landing lights on light planes cannot compare to the dual headlights of a car. Even the Cirrus just does not have the defrost and heat and AC and hi-beams of a production car. This is pretty scary during the start and beginning of the taxi, because you are very aware that you cannot really see where you are going very well, and the prop is spinning so fast that the is really no such thing as “lightly nudging” something as you go forward.. if the prop hits anything, no matter how slow you are going, it’s going to be ugly! Also, the wings spread WAYYY out on either side, adding further hazard to maneuvering around on the ground at night.

The nice part is that when only 1 guy is working the ground, tower, departure, and approach frequencies, and you are the only guy he is talking to, you can just chat like little old ladies at a card game all night long… the air safety aspect is EXCELLENT because each of you knows EXACTLY what the other is doing, with no distractions or interruptions at all… it really is nice… though sort of surreal when there is 20-minute gap in the conversation because you just feel like flying rather than yacking on the radio… it makes you wonder what the controller is doing during the time he is not talking to you… playing solitaire? reading a novel?

Anyway, off I went to 10,000 ft for some maneuvering. Tonight’s goal: climbs, descents, altitude holds, heading holds, steep turns in both directions, and GPS instrument approaches… all with the autopilot, primary flight display, and multi-function display (moving map) failed. “Failing” these systems is easy… you can pull the circuit breakers on all of them. I just don’t turn on the autopilot, though, and turn the brightness down to 0 on my PFD and MFD… when you turn the brightness all the way down, they are COMPLETELY black.

So how do you fly the plane with no attitude or map displays? A great thing about the Cirrus is it’s many layers of backup, each system working a bit differently than the one it backs up. This makes for difficult training and a thick operators manual, but adds an interesting type of redundancy: no matter what breaks, there is some other instrument to give you similar data in a different way. In this case, the standby mechanical airspeed, artificial horizon, and altimeter would suffice for attitude reference, and the 2 Garmin 430’s each have a little moving map… they would provide orientation. First thing: steep turns. Holding 2G’s at 60 degrees bank requires about half of my strength, which gets hard to hold after a while, so with a bit of back trim, it was into the turn. At first, 2 G’s FEELS like a lot… everything gets heavy and a 185 pounder like me comes in 370 pounds… at first it is pretty bizarre but after a few turns around you get used to it. On this night, I was just getting used to the 2-G load after 2 or 3 times around when BAM! The plane jolted up and down abruptly and then settled in again… I HAD JUST HIT MY OWN WAKE! COOL! Every now and then for the next 10 minutes or so as I circled, I would get a little sharp jolt, or, if i came in just right, i nice stiff roll to the left or right depending on whether I intercepted the left or right swirling vortex from my last time around the circle. (right-swirling vortex from the left wing, and vice-versa). Once I had gone around 8 or 9 times I leveled out and felt completely weightless under a “mere” 1 G… and proceeded to balloon up several hundred feet as a result.. a common error.

Now something that is strange about night flight, especially in the winter, is how isolated you feel from everything else in the world. Unlike driving a car at night, there is NO light up there, so you are surrounded in complete blackness. And with no road feel coming back from any road, there is ZERO sensation of speed… only the revving engine and wind-noise, indicating that SOMETHING is going on outside, but you cannot tell if the plane is moving fast, or just motionless while wind blows by it outside. In extreme cases, such as when IFR, you feel like you are in dark hangar filled with smoke, the engine running, and the plane tied down and not moving. You feel like you could open the door, step out, and walk down the hall to get a Coke. The problem is, at 12,000 feet and 200 knots, that first step is a doozie! This is strange during almost all phases of flight because you need to guide the plane, even though you have no visual reference to do it… thus, your little warm red cocoon is charging blindly ahead, with only a few little blinking lights to tell you that there happens to be AIR in front of you rather than granite. This is why IFR and night flying are dangerous, IMHO, and a simulated world really needs to be projected onto the windshield in the form of a bug HUD, or at least on the PFD, so we can SEE where we are going.

As well, it is 40 degrees cooler at 12,000 feet than at sea-level, so it is common to see 0 degrees or lower in wintertime… but once the engine has been running a little while and you are moving, the cabin heat keeps the cockpit all toasty warm… I typically keep it extra-warm to try to compensate for the frigid temperatures right outside.

As well, even though it is pitch-black outside, the cockpit always has a dull red glow (red light preserves your night vision best).

So you are belted into the cockpit, bathed in a warm, dull, red glow, seemingly motionless, while the frigid air screams by right outside.
As Jerry Seinfeld said of driving: “You’re inside, you’re outside, you’re moving, you’re not moving. That’s something!”
Now, night-flight requires some extra skill because your senses tell you NOTHING about what is going on, other than nebulous feeling of turbulence or G-load.. not enough to actually help you fly. So you have to be able to do everything by the numbers… the whole world shrinks down to the size of the tiny warm red cocoon, and the tiny little displays showing your little airplane creeping across the map like a lethargic ladybug… your only clue that you are moving at all. Error is NOT tolerable, since mis-reading an altitude or location can be fatal.. you never see the ground coming. To simulate what night-flight is like in X-Plane, wait until night (unless there are ZERO windows in your X-Plane room) get it COMPLETELY dark in the room, make sure X-Plane is running full-screen, get some GOOD audio, set the visibility to maybe 3 miles, get in a plane like the King-Air or Malibu, plan a flight that you can do on instruments, and have at it. It is a LOT like the real thing, of course!

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