Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Night flight is allright!

January 4th marks the second anniversary of my first solo flight! The end of January marks the expiration of my aviation medical. For non-pilots, once you reach age 40, you must get your medical renewed every two years. Fortunately, Dr. Gaines Martin takes appointments at the airport and will meet pilots every other Wednesday evening.

I met the good doctor at the airport and he checked me out. It was pretty simple. He listened to my heart and lungs, took my blood pressure which was higher than I like, but not too bad. He then checked my eye tracking, looked into my retinas and checked my throat. This was followed by a peek into the eyeball machine. Read the smallest line, etc. In addition, he had some lights that lit to test peripheral vision. Finally, the ultimate - pee in the cup. The only thing the urine test was for was to test for protein and/or sugar. Either are indicative of malfunctioning organs.

I passed.

Since I was going to be at the airport and because I have not flown at night since July, I reserved a plane so I could make the required three landings to a full stop. This will allow me to take passengers at night for the next 90 days.

I took my time preflighting the plane and found that I would be the first pilot to rent the plane following its 100 hour inspection. Because of this, I paid particular attention to the proper functioning of the aircraft controls. From time to time, the mechanics can reverse the controls and that could be bad.

I noted that there were only about 14 gallons of fuel in the right tank and 18 gallons in the left tank...enough for about 3 hours of flight. More than I would need.

The engine started after seven or eight blades and idled nicely. The COMs and NAVs appeared to be working nicely and the VSI was spot on zero. That's a nice change since the last time I flew N512MA.

After getting the ATIS I called ground and was cleared to 14. 14 was the farthest runway from my position, but that was the active due to the prevailing winds. I taxied slowly to the run-up area, but before I reached halfway, the controller told me the wind was now 140 at 4 and runway 23 was available if I wanted it. I eagerly accepted and was cleared to 23 at foxtrot. In the runup area, I went through the checks using my bluegreen flashlight against the worn out checklist. I then continued to the foxtrot intersection and called the tower. "2 Mike-Alpha, cleared for takeoff left turn on course approved." I responded, "Cleared for take off, 2 Mike-Alpha", and slowly turned onto the runway.

I climbed to 2900' and turned left to intercept the 164 radial off the CRG VOR. That should take me straight to Saint Augustine where I hoped to get two of my three landings for the night.

I tuned the ATIS at SGJ and heard winds 150 at 6 - this favored runway 13, so I pulled the approach plate for the VOR 13 approach. Tuning the SGJ VOR and adjusting the OBS to intercept the 308 radial, I adjusted my course to 180 for about a 30 degree intercept. Judging by my groundtrack, it seemed that the winds at my altitude were much stronger than on the ground and a heading of 170 seemed to give me a 180 track.

As I neared SGJ, I heard another aircraft announce he was on final for 31. Knowing that he would have a tailwind and conditions favored 13, I suspected he was practicing the only ILS approach in the neighborhood. (This morning, a Beach KingAir went long on runway 32 at Craig and wiped out the ILS.)

A minute or so later, he announced he was making a low approach and my suspicions were confirmed.

At about 10 DME, I intercepted the 308 radial and made my turn inbound. I announced my postion and intentions on the CTAF - since the tower at SGJ closed about 5 minutes before my departure from CRG (9:05 PM).

When I was at 3 DME, I announced my position, "St Augustine traffic, Warrior 2Mike Alpha, 3 mile final for 13, this will be a stop-and-go, St Augustine".

A minute later, I heard that same other aircraft announce that they were on a 5 mile final to runway 31. Lovely. Freakin' lovely. This meant that they were on a head-on collision course for the same runway that I intended to land and stop on. I hoped he was making a low approach, but I had to plan accordingly. As soon as I heard him, I announced that I was on short final for 13 - placing emphasis on the "one-three" and then said I would clear the runway as quickly as I could. Pain in the ass...jerk never even acknowledged me.

I landed and hit the brakes hoping there would be time for a takeoff before the other plane was in range. No such luck. I could see his landing lights as I rolled down the runway. I then hear him make his call on final. A dozen things ran through my mind. I was on the was mine, dammit! He knew I was there! The winds favored landing in my direction! But, then I remembered that an aircraft on final has right-of-way over other aircraft. I then thought, safety dictates that I get the hell off the runway.

I saw the next taxiway and immediately turned left onto the alpha taxiway. I could at least taxi back. So it would take a few minutes extra...big deal.

The sunofabitch never landed. He never made another radio call. Didn't announce a low approach. Didn't say he was departing to the North. Didn't thank me for clearing out. Bastard didn't do anything except fly home to his momma. He sounded like he was one of those 12-year-olds from ATP.

I wasted all that time for nothing. Nothing but safety, that is.

I taxied back, took off, remained in the pattern for one more landing - this time I made a regular stop-and-go and then departed the pattern to the North.

I leveled off at 2,400' and tuned the CRG VOR to make a beeline to the airport. Just a few other aircraft out there now.

As I got closer, I tuned the ATIS - still the same ROMEO message.

I then tuned the tower and heard a plane being cleared for an instrument departure on 14 "Cleared for takeoff, maintain runway heading to 5,000" I was lined up on the 140 radial, so I knew he'd be coming straight for me, so angling off to the left a bit would not be a bad idea.

I tuned the OBS to the 180 radial and turned left to intercept it. This would put me well out of the way of the departing aircraft and would put me on a familiar approach course. I still was having trouble picking out the airport lights from the morass of twinkles below. At least I knew the VOR would point me in the right direction. I also had my GPS, but with no lights other than my flashlight around my neck and dim panel lights (the overhead was out), using the handheld GPS was more trouble than it was worth.

I contacted the tower and was instructed to enter the right downwind for 14, report midfield which I acknowledged. I could see the departing aircraft ahead and to my right, slightly lower than my altitude. The tower called and asked me to say my altitude. I responded, "descending through two-thousand one hundred". He was probably verifying whether I posed any hazard to the other plane. No other message, so I guessed there was no problem.

As I got closer, the tower called up and said that the wind was now 140 at 4 and runway 5 was available. Since this put me much closer to CRG and required much less maneuvering, I quickly accepted his offer. "Enter right base for 5, report 2 miles."

I was still having trouble spoting the airport lights amongst all the background clutter, but I knew where it should be. I could occasionally spot the airport beacon and knew the runway was off to the right of the beacon. I also knew that the end of runway 5 pointed right at the intersection of St. Johns Bluff Road and Atlantic Boulevard - both of which were easily identified on the ground.

When the DME said 3 miles, I told the tower "2 Mike Alpha, two miles" (the VOR is on the far end of the nearly 1 mile long runway.)

There it was! Just before it was time to turn, I spotted the runway and made the right turn to 050. Lined up and stabilized, I pulled the flaps progressively to full and touched down softly on runway.

While still rolling, the tower advised me to turn on Bravo-4 and taxi to parking. I thanked the controller and proceded to the parking area.

I was so busy navigating, I didn't have much time to enjoy the lights on the ground, nevertheless, this was a particularly enjoyable flight due to the night flight challenge, not to mention the encounter with the plane at SGJ.

It seemed like it took longer, but I only accumulated 0.9 hours time - all at night with 3 night landings to a full stop.

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