Things aren’t looking good for the weather tonight.
About a month ago a bunch of us from the flying club decided to try and do a dinner run. Several of us have been to Final Approach Steakhouse so we decided to make the hour long flight there to give them some more business.
The nights are long during the midwestern winter, so I’ve been looking forward to doing some night flying. Most of the considerations when flying are the same at night. Occasionally it’s possible to lose the horizon as the stars in the sky blend in with the lights on the ground, but cross checking the instruments even while flying VFR solves that problem. The bigger challenge is landing. The sight lines are very different between day and night, so pilots have a tendency to flare higher than they should, leading to clunky landings as the plane eventually hits the runway a bit harder than usual.
Weather forecasts were initially good, but over the past 24 hours got a lot more pessimistic. I’m going to file an IFR flight plan, but that doesn’t get us completely out of the woods. During the winter flying through the clouds in a small plane is pretty much a non-starter. Our planes don’t have any anti-icing capability so cannot fly through the clouds during most of the winter. Worse, this is a night flight, making it harder to see if any ice is accumulating on the wings.
I call the person I’m flying with and one of the other pilots to discuss the forecast. I seem to be the most concerned in the group. I look at the satellite images and don’t like the movement I’m seeing in Minnesota. There is a small system moving our way with ceilings as low as a thousand feet. This would leave us stranded if it comes through while we’re eating. We would get home eventually, but it could add several hours to the trip if we have to wait it out. I’m not excited by this possibility.
The other guys point out that the aviation forecast for the airports along our route is generally good until after we’re scheduled to come home. This information has actually been improving over the past couple hours, a good example of why to make the final decision close to flight time instead of hours earlier. With the trend improving and the flight a short one, I make the decision to launch and head to the airport.
One step out the door and the cold hits me hard. It’s been a very mild winter until this week and this is the first bitterly cold day we’ve had this year. I have my lobster claws, hat and multiple layers but it’s going to be a cold pre-flight.
Arriving at the airport my co-pilot is just parking and we start shaking down the airplane. I throw my flight bag, camera bag and other camera bag into the plane and we taxi over to the pilot lounge to meet the rest of our group.
We arrive at the pilot lounge right on time only to find out that the other two planes haven’t yet been pre-flighted. That being the case we cut the pleasantries short so they can get themselves ready to go. I’m surprised that they aren’t ready, one of the pilots is a guy who likes to fly fast and get places, but such is life. Since my plane is ready to go, we take off into a crimson sunset climbing fast toward the first stars through the dense winter air.
I’m flying tonight with a real pilot. He used to fly for one of the regional airlines, so we practice some crew resource management and split the duties. On the first leg I fly the plane and he works the radios.
As we pass Milwaukee the sky gets completely dark and the temperature at our altitude is 9F. These little planes are very leaky, so it’s cold in the plane until I notice that the heat isn’t properly configured. Turning on the cabin air a little bit provides some additional airflow and things warm up nicely.
Just north of Milwaukee we’re at 6,000 ft in smooth air and staring at a cloud bank up ahead of us. As we start to fly over it becomes apparent that they are thin clouds. We can peer below us and see the city lights underneath. Even better, it’s only about 20 miles ahead before the clouds are gone and we can already see the welcoming lights of Sheboygan.
Finally, we start to be able to hear the other two planes. They seem to have taken about 30 minutes to pre-flight and are now airborne and leaving the O’Hare airspace. We land and park the airplane next to a Piper Arrow.
The parking lot is absolutely packed tonight. Good to see the place doing a healthy business.
We go to our table and find a couple other pilots already there. One is a member of our club but has flown in from his home in Wisconsin to join us. We order some appetizers and wait for the lollygaggers to catch up.
There are a surprising number of hot girls in skimpy clothes and guys capable of bench pressing a Hummer floating around tonight. Like bees to honey they seem to have established a path from the restrooms, through the gift shop and out into the hanger. We ask and find out that there is an MMA event taking place out there tonight. That also explains the huge number of cars in the parking lot.
One of our other planes shows up and we find out that the third has turned around due to an equipment failure. Their turn coordinator has gone south and they elected to bail out given the possibility of instrument weather and the requirement for a turn coordinator to fly an instrument flight plan.
After tasty dinner and telling some great lies about what wonderful pilots we are, it’s time to head for home.
I’m working the radios this time. We have clear skies so we take off VFR and I request a clearance in the air. The other club plane took off just before we did, has a several minute head start, is being flown by the guy who likes to fly fast and is a faster plane. We also filed for a couple thousand feet higher than they, leading to a longer climb. By the time we get to our assigned altitude the other plane is well ahead of us.
About 20 minutes into the flight we are told we can navigate directly to our destination and notice that we actually seem to have gained ground on the other plane. Instead of it getting further and further away we actually may be able to pass it. We must be benefiting from an increased tailwind at our altitude.
Another 15 minutes pass and we have indeed passed them. Now that we’re a little ahead of them and getting close to the destination ATC has to slow them down so we don’t arrive too close to the same time. I hear ATC tell them to turn and immediately afterward the other plane cancels IFR so that they don’t end up delayed by us. We begin our descent and request a straight in approach and hear the other plane request the crossing runway. This will allow them to beat us to the fuel pump.
I ask my pilot if he wants me to request a switch of runways, but he’s in no rush. We’ll let them get to the pump first.
We land and, due to the ice on the runway, are unable to make the first turn onto the taxiway as the brakes are gripping badly. That will settle the “who gets to the fuel pump first” question. We drive halfway down the long runway, do a 180 onto the taxiway and start to wander back toward the fuel pump. As we roll to the ramp we see the other plane heading skyward instead of stopping. He tells the tower he’s going around and they clear him to land again. He’s doing multiple landings in order to lock in his night currency.
We go to the pump and he pulls in behind us. Now we find out the truth, he was so excited to beat us that he hadn’t managed his energy well and was hot on final. He had to go around because he was way to fast to land.
After a good round of teasing him we head for the hanger and lock up for the night.