First night flight

Thursday was my first night flight. It was spectacular. All around me, the cities were lit up like they had Christmas lights all over. Visibility was great - from Sacramento, I could see the lights at Lincoln and Auburn while flying at 2000 feet. Airports were very distinguishable with their beacons running, occasionally pulsing a bright white or green.

Airport lighting is kinda interesting. Look for the gap where you think the airport should be, and where the beacon claims there is an airport. Switch to the right communications frequency, then tap the transmit button a number of times. Depending on how many times you tap it, the lights will light up at various intensities and stay lit for 15 minute. All the lights - runway, approach, taxi, etc. Runways that used to belong to the airforce are particularly impressive with their size and quantity of lighting.

My instructor says landing at night is identical to landing at the day. Technically, he’s right. Same air speeds, engine speeds, attitudes. That said, when you can’t see the ground, there’s a bit of a panic that runs through one’s head. You have to put a fair bit of faith into the hands of the people who designed that airport, and the charts around that airport.

One item that helps is that some airports have lighting systems that will let you know if you’re on the right glide angle coming into the airport. The lights are all red if you’re coming in too low; and all white if you’re too high. Half red half white means you’re on the right path. The number of lights and positioning of such vary with which system is used, but the basics are the same. They are actually very low tech - they just have blinders on them such that you can only see the light if you’re on the correct glide angle. For more information, see the VASI entry at Wikipedia.

At the end of training, we received clearance to circle around downtown Sacramento once. Sacramento’s skyline is much more findable during the day than at night, as it turns out. At least from 2000 feet, it is not super impressive :-). It was still a neat experience and on the list of things I wanted to do once I got my license. So, we snuck this in a bit early :)

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