Night Flying

Author’s Note: This is a long piece…not originally written as a blog but as a story…about 18 years ago. I am republishing it here in memory of my good friend, Doug Blum. The impact of his death on my life can’t be overstated, and I have recently been blessed by being contacted by one of his cousins who was also in Naval Aviation with us some years later.

Flying an airplane at night takes no different skill than flying it in the day. Or so they say. I take out my tiny, black, metal flashlight with its red light lens and shine it on the instrument panel before me to assure myself everything is there. I point the light at my checklist which I remember calls for me to shut the airplane’s door. There is one, it is on the other side of the passenger seat, and I am held so tightly by seat belts and shoulder harness I can’t lean enough to reach it. To prove the point, I fumble my checklist and drop it on the floor in front of the passenger seat. My hand reaches through empty space after it, well short of the goal, to prove I can’t get there. Like I must do with any of life’s problems, I relax, sit up straight in the seat, pull the slack out of the shoulder harness so I can move, and then bend down and fetch my checklist and slam the door shut. I am in my safe little metal cocoon now, ready to go.

For a moment, I stare out the Plexiglas windscreen at an ocean of black, feeling the cool air spill through a small port in the window at my left shoulder. In front of me, the silhouettes of other airplanes, metal ghosts in the night, wait for resurrection underneath a moonless, cloudless sky. Moments ago, before I got in this airplane, I had been looking at a needle-line of trees lit from behind by the orange glow of Houston’s city lights and petrochemical plants. How light it still was here even in the dark! I have seen nights so black I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Could I really call this a night flight? If I were flying out at sea like I used to or out at my favorite home, the desert wilderness of Big Bend National Park, or even in the small town where my Missouri fiancé lives, it would be as dark as sin, whatever that is. But now, now that I am sitting in the airplane trying to let my eyes adjust to the dark, trying to see the small instruments and switches I am about to activate, that self-derision goes away. I point my red light flashlight at the checklist and begin going through its steps…check cabin door closed and latched, seat belts and harnesses fastened, lights and electrical equipment off, parking brake set.

It is time to move on to Engine Start.

Time to move on. That thought is running through my subconscious, for what lies in wait for me on the ground is scarier than any night flight could be. I hope. My life appears to be headed for change. Big change. Change so scary I can’t stand to feel it, even though thinking about it comes easy. The fear is running through me like an electrical charge, held back from any conscious acknowledgement by my own defense, and I know it. I am trying to forget it here, trying to escape its grasp for over an hour, to escape the self-doubt and questioning that always comes with following one’s heart, one’s gut…to lose myself in the air and the preoccupation of flying this airplane. To forget for one hour that without this change, my fiancé and I will go our separate ways, forget the investment in Love and Life we have made with each other, and let go of a special opportunity to grow. An opportunity that my mind is arguing with every step of the way. Linear, logical, my mind solves the world’s best problems in that way, never admitting for a moment that Life itself is neither linear or logical nor can it ever make total sense. I think if it could figure out what it all means, I would be in very big trouble.

Throttle forward one half inch. Master switch on, and the airplane springs to an electrical life. I turn on the cockpit lights and adjust them so I can see the instruments, flip on the electric fuel pump, and listen to its agonized whir. The engine is still hot and doesn’t need priming. I yell “CLEAR PROP!” in my high, breaking voice (not likely to inspire fear or confidence in any pilot or passerby–if there was any) and then hit the engine’s starter. Out the window, the ghostly prop spins, the starter groaning at the load, and the engine growls awake. I pull the throttle back a little so the engine is at the proper idle, pushing my feet against the brake pedals as I hold her tight, not trusting the parking brake alone even though it’s doing the job, and shine my light on the engine oil pressure gauge. Its little needle is in the green. I turn on the airplane’s flashing lights, turn the electric fuel pump off and check the engine fuel pressure. It’s good and the engine is still running. Engine Start is complete.

My headset has been sitting on my shoulders, wrapped around my neck like a pet cat. With the engine safely started, I pull it up over my ears, positioning the headband so it presses comfortably on top of my head, and say “Test, test, test” to no one but me to make sure it is working. At the speed of light, my own voice traverses the distance down the chord, inside the airplane’s avionics, and then back to me. I turn on the radios, check them and the panel that controls them to make sure I don’t talk to some nasty air traffic controller who will yell at me. Not that there are any out here. I am flying out of an “uncontrolled field”, named that way because there is no control tower, and as many things in American society are, out of a reference point to government authority. Here, the pilots handle traffic separation by procedure and radio communication, and we do a good job. Most of the time. There is always the ten percent, as they say who don’t get the word. I don’t care as long as it isn’t me.

Taxi Checklist. Radios are on and set to the right frequencies; the transponder–a device that lets Houston air traffic controllers see me on radar, is on and set to ALT so they know how high I am; exterior lights are on. Reaching down, I release the parking brake, and the airplane rolls forward with no more urging. I push on the right rudder pedal and the airplane’s nose swings right, pointing into the darkness punctuated by the brief, passing white and red lights of cars whizzing down the road perpendicular to and just beyond the end of the runway. I have the airplane’s landing light turned on; the white, one-eyed monster paints the ground in a hazy white ellipse in a vain effort to push back the amoeba of darkness trying to swallow us up. I taxi forward, heading toward a explosion of white light coming from the airport lobby’s long, rectangular windows. The light seems like a blast from another world. Inside that other earth, the green cinder block hangar that is the airport’s business office, I see two young women. One is slender with hair beyond her shoulders, and the other sports a medium build and hair that stops short. The slender young woman looks like she is working behind the counter and is not paying attention to me. The other is staring, out at me, out into the darkness, out into eternity. I wonder what she is thinking about it and then jerk myself back into my moving, threatening reality. This is no time to think about anything but flying.

Turning left, I drive my airplane up to the run-up area, a small ramp of asphalt next to the runway, and spin the airplane around to face parallel to the runway. Setting the parking brake again, I flip my checklist to the next page in pursuit of my next thing to do. The Before Takeoff Checklist. I review it once because I know its actions will come fast and I want to be prepared, a philosophy I wish I had learned before I began practicing life. Which is passing quickly. Soon, it will be gone, and me with it. Then, I’ll probably be wise.

Ready. I run the throttle up. The engine growls, and I can feel the airplane trying to surge forward. I hold her tight, checking oil pressure, oil temperature, fuel pressure, before singly switching off each of the engine’s two magnetos, each firing her spark plugs, and watching the engine rpm drop to a specified tolerance. Within limits. I pull the propeller controller back a little and hear the prop change pitch and see the engine rpm drop and put it all back like it was. The propeller is working, so I check the vacuum gauge (an engine vacuum pump runs some of the instruments), the ammeter to make sure the electrical system is okay; and, satisfied that all is well, I pull the throttle back so the engine comes to an idle. After I check that windows and doors are shut, that my flight controls move like they are supposed to, that my instruments are set, the transponder is on, and turn on the electric fuel pump again, the Before Take Off Checklist is complete. I am almost ready to fly.

Sticking my small flashlight and my checklist under my right leg, I push the throttle up a little and step on the left rudder pedal. Like an obedient horse, the airplane pirouettes, allowing me to search the black skies for the flashing lights of an approaching airplane. Seeing no one, I complete the circle and point my nose and my airplane’s at the runway, its end marked by a small green light on each corner and its edges marked by white lights that draw an outline my mind completes. I turn on the landing light, its small ellipse of whiteness, of surety, outlining little more than what I can hit in the first few yards. The rest of the runway disappears into a black hole.

Any takeoff is a test of faith. As I move out toward the center of the runway, I spin the airplane left as I smoothly add power. Just after the nose is straight down the runway, which I can tell because the white lights are spaced on equal sides of my nose, the engine is at full power. The air is cool, and her power is good. Almost before I know it I am passing 60 mph, flying speed, and I pull back on the yoke and we lift into the air. Runway lights and dark tree lines fall below, replaced quickly by a panorama of lights, mostly yellow and white, that push outward to form a horizon. I make a radio call telling other pilots I am turning right as the altimeter hits 700 feet. Already the houses below me are starting to look like toys. My reality has shifted. I am alone up here. Alone with my thoughts. Alone with my fears. Only my skills and this machine, if it doesn’t burst into pieces before I get home, will bring me safely back to earth.

I push the nose down and pull the throttle and propeller back a bit, climbing very slowly and accelerating toward the southeast. Above me at 2000 feet is the floor of controlled airspace, what we pilots know as Class B. If I fly into it without air traffic control permission, the FAA will do nasty things to me and my pilot’s license. So, I stay below it until I cross the road at the airport’s southern edge and then climb again, knowing that the floor has itself climbed up to 4000 feet. I point the airplane toward a field we use to practice maneuvers, a field that there are no lighted structures on, and whose location I know from experience and blackness. I am truly flying toward a void. On purpose. Lights below mean businesses, houses, and people who might be bothered by my maneuvers even though I can quite legally do them overhead. It’s better not to buy trouble, except in my relationships with women, where I do it all the time.

Those who say that flying at night is no different than flying in the daytime have never done it. I feel strange, out of place, like I am not supposed to be here and am unsure what I am doing. This is called feeling rusty. I am and it shows. While I flew at night only a month or so ago, I have not flown this airplane at night for about 90 days. I feels like it’s been two years. Even the ground looks strange and unfamiliar. I see lights outlining a round tank and a small plant on the east side of a highway below and feel lost even though I know right where I am. I don’t remember seeing that before. It may have been there for years or may have been built last week. In Houston, there is no way to tell. Every square inch of green in the city is being bought, developed, paved over, industrialized, condo-ized, and suburbed faster than you can blink. The Gods That Be will not be happy until every dollar is wrung out, every piece of grass gone, and every chance of skin cancer is yours for the taking. And it is.

Back to my flying. The yellow, muted, lighted stacks of petroleum plants that make up Texas City are in front of me. Beyond, black land fades to blacker water split by a small snake of light connecting to Galveston Island, itself a sliver of lights separating me from the Great Blackness beyond. The Gulf of Mexico. Like another ocean I used to night fly over long ago…

I joined Naval Aviation as a Radar Intercept Officer flying in the back seat of an F-14, then the U.S. Navy’s premiere fighter. “I hate night traps” was one of the first things I heard. I didn’t understand. As a pilot myself, except for the actual “coming aboard”, I knew most of it was instrument flying, something I was good at. I had heard that there was nothing blacker than being airborne during a moonless night at sea, but living in some kind of city, big or small, all my life, I didn’t know I had never seen dark. Until I did. Until we launched out one moonless night under an overcast sky into the heartless depths of what maps and navigation systems said was the Indian Ocean. When we came back, the ship was a small light, swimming in a blackness that had no end, no up or down, no left or right. It just WAS. DEEP. BLACK. FEAR. Procedure and instruments brought us back alive night after night, where we would plunge in less than a second from a world of air and engine noise onto a metal world, bathed in a pallor of yellow light, filled with creatures bearing goggle eyes and multi-colored vests using hand signals to tame the controlled violence that the ship was. Night after night. Most of us came back alive. But then there was Doug. The best friend I didn’t know I had until he was gone…

We were on the U.S.S. Vinson, a nuclear-powered, Nimitz class aircraft carrier, in the Meditteranean sea. The ship was on her first cruise, and we were conducting war games as training and to prove the ship’s mettle. Aircraft launchings and landings were running around the clock. I had come in from a night flight just before midnight and immediately gone to bed. The darkness of sleep swallowed me, chased away too quickly by the sound of the stateroom phone ringing in my ear at 5 a.m.. I had overslept. The squadron duty officer was rousting me on the phone.

“Your briefing has already started,” he said.

“I’ll be right there,” I said, groggily. Wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I slapped on my boots, zipped up my flight suit, and ran down to the squadron’s ready room. We were flying two crews on my event; and though I wasn’t flying with my good friend and usual pilot, Corey, there was an empty seat right next to him. I sat down there and was listening to the briefer talk about an ongoing search and rescue which I thought was part of the games until I heard him say that the crew of an S-3, and anti-submarine twin jet, had spotted debris in the water.

“Hey, what’s going on?” I said, tapping Corey on his arm.

Corey didn’t hear me, hadn’t felt me. He was glued to the briefing. So, I hit him on his arm again. Harder.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“You don’t know?” he said, startled.

“Know what?”

“Doug and Zack flew into the water.”

Navy airplanes start an approach to the ship at night in a way that is very similar to airliners stacked in bad weather at an airport. The ship gives you a holding altitude at a specified point, and you are supposed to be there at a certain time and begin your approach at a certain time. To the second. Most of the time, you hold fairly high. You descend down to only 1200 feet and level off, fly level there until intercepting the ship’s instrument approach, and then begin a slow, controlled approach that takes you to within three quarters of a mile where the pilot uses a visual aid called a “mirror” (we called it “the ball” because it looked like a ball sliding up or down). Doug never got that far.

The story goes that the ship launched them out on their event sometime after midnight. Doug had made it out to his patrol station some distance away when the ship realized they were sailing into fog and they wanted everyone back aboard before they did. So, they told everyone to come back. Earlier than planned. For Doug, that meant he had a lot of gas he had to get rid of. The Tomcat couldn’t take the stresses of a landing with a lot of gas aboard. Since Doug always liked to burn gas rather than dump it, he pushed the throttles into full afterburner, making the run back to the ship faster than the speed of sound. (A helluva a fun thing to do!) He arrived back at the ship when he was supposed to but with too much gas. Slowing down to something like 400 knots (about 460 mph), he began the approach and leveled off at 1200 feet like he was supposed to. But he still had too much gas. So, he asked the approach controller if he could do a couple of three hundred sixty degree turns to buy some time and dump some more gas. The controller approved. At 1200 feet and 400 knots, he did the first to the left and reversed to the right. In the middle of the second turn, radar contact was lost.

No one ever saw or heard from him or his RIO again.

I also never saw their official accident report. We were told that after examining the radar tapes, looking at the speed and radius of turn at constant altitude, that Doug had pulled four g’s in the turn. Such forces and the reversal of turns probably had given the crew vertigo; and in his disorientation, he flew them into the water.

But Doug was too good for that. Flying was his life and soul. And where was the backseater during all that? Asleep at the wheel? I couldn’t buy it. Not as the sole explanation. There was one other thing I never heard anyone talk about, something I and every Tomcat crew has probably personally experienced, which was the fuel dump valve sticking open. That was a problem you had to solve and solve quickly if you wanted to stay airborne. And if cycling the switch didn’t work, the way you fixed it was to open a circuit breaker on a panel forward of the pilot’s right knee. If Zack was focused on the diverging fuel quantity and Doug was reaching forward to open the circuit breaker, he could have easily, unnoticeably, eased the stick forward and knew nothing until he felt the shock, the transition, and he was Moving Toward the Light.

Doug’s death shook all of us. Me, to the core. I was already getting restless, thinking about where to go on my next tour of duty, trying to decide whether to stay in the navy or get out.  was being told my F-14 days were probably over; and Doug’s deaath made me look at how I felt if my life ended the same way.  That possible future felt really empty. I didn’t mind being a warrior but I didn’t want to die as one.  That meant it was time to move on.

Now, eighteen years later and despite the fact that Doug had died night flying, I turn, looking for other airplanes in the vicinity. Seeing none, I slow my airplane down to maneuvering speed and roll into what a “steep turn”. Sixty degrees angle of bank. Two g’s. I practice balancing power, bank angle, and pitch to hold as close as I can to sixty and maintain my altitude, and then reverse in the other direction. Like Doug did, I turn left then right but with much less duress and nothing at stake but proficiency. Happy with my performance, I pull the power back, drop the landing gear, and drop the flaps, slowing the airplane down until a red light and a small horn tell me I am nibbling at a stall, something I can tell from the feel of the airplane anyway. I hold the airplane there, making small turns while I hang on the edge of flyability; and then satisfied with that, I push the throttle to full, slowly raise the flaps, raise the landing gear, and transition back to a full cruise at 145 mph, which is slow for a jet but fast for a light airplane. Turning west, I check my altitude (I’m at 3000 feet. The Class B is at 4000 feet.) and decide to do stalls. Takeoff stalls first. I slow the airplane down to climb speed and then point the nose upward and add power. Once stabilized at climb speed, I pull the nose up, up, up…to get her slow enough to stall. Well above me I see what appears to be a jet heading out of Houston; I turn on my landing light just to let him see me. The nose buffets and drops slightly when I force the airplane to stall; I release pressure on the stick. The stall ends and I adjust the nose to get a climb going again.

That done, I pull the power back and turn back toward my field, which I have flown away from. I slow the airplane down, drop landing gear and flaps, and pretend I am landing. I slow the airplane to a stall, let the nose buffet and drop, recover with full power and raising the flaps and then the landing gear. With my self-imposed, in-flight maneuver series complete, I head west, making my way back toward the airport. I see its beacon and the runway itself dimly, miles away to my north, awaiting my return. I could turn in from here and fly straight toward it; but in deference to flight time and to set up for a recommended FAA entry, I fly the airplane until I am just east of I-45 and parallel it. The airport is hard to see from here because of all the lights around it. Only familiarity allows me to pick it out with just a glance.

A few moments later, I am in the traffic pattern abeam the runway. I perform my landing checklist and fly my descending rectangular course toward the runway. To keep the airplane aligned it once I line up, I am flying with left rudder and right wing down. There is a crosswind, a wind blowing ninety degrees to the runway. Unexpected, but No Big Deal. But why is the runway so dark?

Sometime between takeoff and now, the landing light had burned out. I normally practice no landing light landings and no instrument light landings and no instrument and landing light landings. It was No Big Deal, except I hadn’t planned on this. Another lesson in not being totally in control. Time to adapt.

I landed without a problem, even if a little firmer than I liked. But what did I do now? I brought the airplane to a full stop on the dark runway. Use of a landing light was not legally required. This was the second time in a couple of weeks I was trying to re-qualify for carrying passengers at night, and the FAA required three landings to a full stop every ninety days. The last time I had flown this airplane I had grounded the airplane for a broken airspeed indicator that was legally required. Part of me, the part that wanted to be perfectly safe, maybe the smarter part of me, said to taxi back in, shut down, and call it a night.

I checked the trim while praying there wasn’t a coyote or deer on the runway and pushed the throttle forward and took off again. And again. And again.  The third time I landed and taxied back to the hangars at a pace slower than I could walk, discovering that taxiing on unlighted taxiways had become the hardest part of this flight. I mainly used the light from the red and green position lights on the low wings and a small flashlight to get me back to my dark hangar past the unlit rows of airplanes without hitting anything.

As I buttoned the airplane down and walked back to my truck, I thought about the night flying I still had to do. My upcoming marriage (I hope. I’ve been in a broken engagement. Even though in my soul I know this will happen, my fears still creep in, not content to relax until the fat lady sings, if then). The necessary change in career that it will probably bring. Possible economic ruin. The unknowns of friends, family, and locale. The fear of failure. The fear of the unknown. All those things that night flying represents. All those things I do anyway even when I am afraid. And I usually am. I think it’s a good idea to be.