One of the reasons I took up flying was that my family had scattered itself all over Florida and I hate dealing with traffic. The combination of roads crowded with tourists and an aversion to long lines of cars left me with no place to go but up.
Shortly after earning my private pilot certificate, I found myself with a beautiful December evening and nothing to do. I decided to make a flight down to Crystal River (CGC) to visit my father and stepmother and play Santa to deliver their Christmas presents a few days early. I loaded my gifts into the Piper Warrior around 4 in the afternoon and headed out from my home airport, Craig Municipal (CRG).
The skies were clear and the forecast called for more of the same. Winds were light from the Northwest, so I would have a slight headwind on my outbound trip and a slight tailwind on the return.
The trip down was uneventful. In fact, although I flew VFR, I had pulled down the instrument plates for both Crystal River and Craig and amazed myself at how easily I found my destination.
Following a nice dinner and our early Christmas, it was time for me to return home. As a new pilot, I did not have many hours flying after dark, but I had flown a similar route just a month earlier at night and was confident that I could find my way home.
I departed around 9 pm, several hours after sunset. My dad drove me right up to the plane and I used his parking lights to assist me with my preflight inspection. Using his car lights and my red-lensed flashlight, I thoroughly inspected the aircraft and found no problems. Having said my goodbyes, I got in and started the engine. Everything was normal so far. I turned on the electronics and listened for other traffic. The absence of traffic came as no surprise. I then taxied past the parked planes and made my way to Crystal River’s only runway.
Executing my run-up took little time and all systems checked out. I was especially careful to double check everything using my checklist since I knew how hard it would be to see suitable emergency landing areas at night. All systems go!
This was my first experience using the mic to control the runway lights and I was quite proud of myself when I managed to turn them on without any difficulty. Again, I carefully listened for other traffic in the area and was not surprised to find empty airspace. Announcing my intentions, I entered the runway and departed on runway 09. I made my turn towards the northeast at 1000 feet MSL (around here MSL and AGL are pretty close). Once I had established a stable climb and ran through my climb checklist, I contacted Jacksonville Approach and requested flight following back to CRG. Since the Gators had finished their football season, the skies were fairly empty. In fact, I only heard the controller speak to two additional pilots the entire flight. I received one traffic alert, but that was for a plane that was 11 miles ahead and he was rapidly crossing above me and to the South.
The skies were incredibly clear that night. Although the controller instructed me to contact him when CRG was in sight, I waited long after I made visual contact. Flying alone, I wanted the extra reassurance of the controller’s voice. I actually saw the beacon when the DME indicated 50 nm from the CRG VORTAC. That’s a clear sky!
At 20 nm out, I let the controller know I had the tower in sight and he instructed me to contact Craig Tower on 132.1 and expect runway 32. Knowing that I had plenty of time and a clear sky, I thought I would practice intercepting the ILS for 32. The intercept point is on the southeast side of town and I was entering the area from the southwest.
As I began my descent to the intercept altitude of 1900 feet I adjusted my course towards the intercept point. Having stabilized the descent, I tuned in the ATIS to get the latest numbers.
To add an extra margin of safety, I felt for the landing lights and flicked the switch. Instantly, everything inside the cabin went dark!
The only part of the dashboard that doesn’t have good lighting is the switch panel and I had mistakenly hit the master switch. I immediately turned the switch back on and experienced great relief when the lights on the dash and the radios came alive again. The GPS had to run through a power-on self-test, but I wasn’t relying on that anyway.
I then tuned Craig tower and listened to make sure my call would not walk on other broadcasters. Hearing no activity, I made my call. “Craig Tower, Warrior 6033-Hotel”. Nothing. I waited a little figuring that the controller must have gone for coffee and repeated the call. Still nothing. “Ok”, I thought, “one more try.” I made the call and started to think I had damaged the radios with my switch fumbling. Still no reply.
I then decided to remain outside of the Class D airspace while I sorted things out. I leveled the plane at 1900 feet and started to go over lost communication procedures. It occurred to me that perhaps they could hear me, but I couldn’t hear them. To test this, I switched to COM2 and the ATIS came through loud and clear. “Hmmm…maybe the problem is just COM1…” Nope. ATIS came through just fine on that radio, too.
What could the problem be?
Finally, I thought of trying to reestablish contact with Jacksonville Approach Control, so I retuned the radio to their frequency. “Jacksonville Approach, Warrior 6033-Hotel.” I was so relieved to hear the response, “Warrior 33-Hotel, Jax”. I calmly explained that I had been trying to contact Craig Tower without success and was wondering if they knew what the problem was.
“33-Hotel, how long ago did you try to contact Craig?”, the controller asked.
I immediately replied, “Well, I’ve been trying for the last five minutes without any luck”.
The controller then explained, “It’s now 10:08 pm, Craig Tower closed at 10.”
I felt quite silly at that point and I thanked the controller for his help. I guess that’s what the A/FD is for.
I managed to navigate to the intercept point for the ILS on Runway 32 and made a perfect, stabilized approach…following self-announce procedures all the way to the runway.
Sometimes a little traffic is a good thing and sometimes the reason the radios don’t seem to work is that there is no one listening…or at least I hope so.