I have spent about 250 hours at the yoke of an airplane. One would think that I have experienced quite a few things during this time, and for sure I have many experiences so far. However, I am realizing that perhaps one will never be free from surprises. You hear stories of veteran pilots having to deal with unforeseen circumstances and when I got to do some night flights this semester, I encountered some situations that I was not used to.
Night flying is very different from flying during the day. Your entire perspective of your environment around you changes. It is much harder to see terrain, you can see some roads and you don’t necessarily know which ones, sometimes you can at best only see the edges of bodies of water. Airports are sometimes dark except for a single flashing beacon at the top of the control tower.
I had finished a couple flights with my instructor the week before including a cross country flight to Walla Walla, so I had fresh in my mind some of the differences with night flying mentioned above. This night was different, however. There had been some cloud activity between Spokane and Moses Lake (where I was heading) earlier that day and it was not certain whether some were still lingering in the area or not. The temperature was dropping which means that if there is moisture in the air there was a risk of ground fog building and could be a problem for visibility. The other thing with dropping temperatures that precipitation and visible moisture (mist, fog or clouds) could present icing hazards which my aircraft was not equipped to deal with.
Upon departure conditions looked reasonable to take off. The dewpoint and temperature spread was very small which means that fog could form very easily, but visibility was still good, so I took off. I flew over the city and noted a couple puffs of moisture in the air as I was buzzing through them. I turned on the pitot-heat to warm up the pitot-tube so that no ice would build on it. That is about as much anti icing equipment this particular aircraft has. The pitot tube is used to measure how fast you are going through the air and if it freezes and clogs it would be harder to know how fast I was going which is important to know especially when you are trying to land somewhere. I flew over Spokane International Airport and Fairchild AFB with all their pretty runway lights and headed out over the dark countryside. I was looking for my next checkpoint which would a town and expected it to look like a dense cluster of lights. To the north would be another town of similar proportions to use as a reference to where I was going. I also kept a sharp eye on the wing strut and wing root just outside my window. If I would accumulate any frost or icing it is in those places I would be able to see it.
I kept looking north to spot the town and one after one I noticed that small lights on the ground were going out. I looked out through the front windshield and saw that the lights I saw in front of me were quickly disappearing. This only meant one thing: clouds. Before I could react, all I saw was the beam off my taxi light and the flashes of the strobes against the condensed water vapor in the air all around me. I immediately banked left to initiate a turn back to where I came from. Since I has lost all outside vision references to whether the aircraft was pitching up or down, or how much of a bank I was in, I centered my vision on the attitude indicator showing me an artificial horizon inside the cockpit.
It all had happened so fast. I remember the small rush of “this is not good” struck me for a millisecond and then reacted into a turn to fly the aircraft back the way I came. I had no idea how long I would have been in the cloud if I would have continued forward and I was happy to see the view and lights of Spokane in the distance shortly after I had completed a full 180 degree turn back to the way I came from. I called the air traffic controller as soon as I got my outside visual references back and said that I was returning to Spokane. I checked for any indication for ice stuck on the aircraft, but could see none which was a very geed thing.
I decided to fly direct to Spokane International. Even though I trashed the plan to go to Moses Lake I could still go to do some work at International. A commercial pilot needs a minimum of 10 landings at night at a towered field to get his or her commercial pilots license. So I called approach and told them my intentions.
Still a little shaken by entering a cloud I collected the information inside and outside the cockpit that I needed for closing the distance between me and the airport. Everything looks different at night and I quickly realized that I was a bit lower than I first thought I was. I wasn’t very far from entering the airport traffic pattern, so I shallowed my descent and concentrated on configuring the aircraft for landing.
I continued to do the other 9 more patterns to get all 10 of them in. Another Moody student came to the same airport to fill his requirements and we had some fun flying in circles around the airport watching each other land. Occasionally we had to give way for a larger jet aircraft delivering paying passengers to the airport. The flying went well. Got a couple ones that were really soft, but as time went by fatigue comes in to play and it was a bit harder to concentrate which showed a little in the quality of landings.
Only a few miles away was our home base Felt’s Field. I had been monitoring the weather there over the last hour for the risk of fog. It turned out that fog moved in shortly after I departed two hours earlier. Sometimes fog disperses, but it seemed quite consistent this night. Our dispatcher in the hangar had also given us some reports from what he could see. Me and the other student both flew over there to have a look. The approach and the runway was pretty much clear from what we could see, but in the event of an aborted landing we would enter some dense fog. This would be very hazardous due to icing potentials and perhaps loosing orientation very close to the ground. We could not land there.
We had three other options not far away: Deer park to the north, Coeur D’Alene to the east, and International to the west. Since we knew that International was clear, had a controlled tower and really close we selected to go there. They also had a lobby we could wait for someone to pick us up at. I flew over the town and within minutes I was on the ground, got instructions to where to park and wrapped up the evening. Our dispatcher came and picked us up. He drove us home for a short night. We had to get up early to get the aircraft ready and delivered back to Felt’s Field for some other students who had flights scheduled for that day.
Even though not much went as planned this evening and there were quite a few unusual circumstances I came away with a lot of good experience. I saw that I had stuck to what I have trained for, that if a situation looks bad you are allowed to abort. I also learned a lot about what weather can look like (or not look like) and how fast fog could be built. (Only an hour or so after we landed and parked at International that airport too got covered in fog.) It also got to see that it really pays off to be prepared, to have alternatives planned out in case things doesn’t go as desired. I also assume that at some point in my career I would have to divert to another field for safety reasons, and it was actually nice that this was my first experience with it.