Arriving at Lunken as the sun was dipping past the horizon, it was a strange feeling… Usually I’m leaving the airport at this time, not just getting here. Tonight, we start night flight with a nighttime cross-country… and I don’t think anything more could have decided otherwise for us.
During preflight we were checking lights and noticed that the landing light was out of commission. Kind of against regs to fly without the landing light… but, we’ll survive. We still have our strobes and nav lights. Taxiing to 21L my eyes become fully adjusted to the unusual lighting.
Take off was normal, just a little dark, especially with no landing light. We got into our climb, turned crosswind, turned downwind and departed on our heading of 086 for KUNI over in Athens (the Ohio University Airport)
Soon after we were up in the air ATC calls asking about our transponder. We were showing up as a target with no altitude… after smacking it around a little bit we got the OK from ATC. In the meantime our right strobe light stopped working as well. Occasionally it would give a little blink, but not enough to be comforting. The left strobe light then gave out as well… good thing for Nav lights, eh? The strobe on the left wing did come on about 3 minutes later though.
We’re chuggin’ through the skies above Clermont Country, reviewing normal night flight procedures along with nighttime navigation. I was a little uneasy (especially with things not working) but most was fine. Not long after departure, Gary asks me, so do you think we should turn around? He’s always asking me these loaded questions, and I can never tell what he’s going for. I answered with that if I was by myself I’d be turned around and back on the ground as quick as I could… but since he was up, I had full confidence that we could handle ourselves. He shrugged an OK and we continued.
After getting about 45 miles to the east of Lunken, near Hillsboro, the lights on the instruments started a methodic dimming process along with the amps meter. This was going on when we had the alternator on… and the alternator off… no good. I think it had something to do with only having one strobe light on, and the capacitors were discharging unevenly. I also then noticed, with rising tension… that the plane was only feeding fuel through its left wing tank…
… well crap
So we’re 45 miles out, with 1/4 of one tank of fuel, no landing light and half of our strobe lights, a transponder that is on the fritz… and its bloody dark outside!
**Note: In all this craziness, I do have to make note that I have never seen so many stars in Cincinnati as what I saw up away from the lights. It was amazing, absolutely gorgeous. I had to keep my mind on flying the plane and not on staring at all the pretty stars :-)
Gary makes the executive decision and I pull a 180 heading directly west, back towards Lunken. I’m nervously watching our fuel and making calculations to see if we have enough to get back… 29 gallons full, and burning 6 per hour. 1/4 of 29 is about 7.25 gallons, plus a 10 knot direct headwind… we should be fine to get back, we had only been flying for about 25 minutes. See my error (that I just now realized)… we had 1/4 fuel on one wing, not total. The right wing fuel wasn’t even feeding. 1/4 of 15 gallons is just under 4 gallons, 2/3’s hour, 40 minutes? Scary eh? These calculations, however, do not match what I saw from the cockpit. You can never really tell how much fuel you have from those gauges, but we were just under 1/4 tank when we were landed.
On the way back to Lunken, we kept going over nighttime navigation and what to be looking for. I noticed how many more planes you see flying at night. Gary chuckled and said its funny because there’s like five-times as many flying during the day, and we don’t see them!
Lunken was about 3 miles in front of us and we were descending from just under 2000. Gary asks, can we make it with power off? NO WAY my mind said… “No, I don’t think we can…” Gary thought for a second and reached over and pulled the throttle all the way back. This guy is a freakin’ loony! is all that went through my mind. We’re coasting / dropping over darkness… which knowing the Lunken area can only mean that trees were soon to be our passengers. I was doing my best to keep 70 knots and aim straight for the threshold of the runway, but we just kept dropping. We were going down at about 700 feet per minute and at a level that appeared to me to be just skimming the tops of trees… when Gary said… guess you’re right, and pushed the throttle to max. I breathed a sigh of relief and we continued…
We landed at Lunken just a few minutes after 11, and the tower closes at 11, so we just missed them taking care of us. A little bit of traffic was in the area, but we had no problems getting in and off the runway. I kept wanting to flare well too early during the landing. The combination of not being able to see the runway due to being nighttime and along with no landing lights was keeping the darkness below me a little scary.
We did survive though. We hung around the office until 12:15ish talking about the flight and all the different aspects of night flight. I think I’m really going to enjoy flying at night as long as the plane is in working condition… I’ll have to reschedule the cross country, this time with 3729D instead of 37147… hah… crazy planes…
Have a great weekend!!!!