Night flight is one of the most beautiful times to be in a light aircraft. But there are some times when the unexpected jumps up in a way thats terrifying at best, deadly at worst.
I was flying three passengers in a VFR Archer from Fort Myers, Fla., to Orlando one evening. We departed Page Field as the sky was just losing its grip on the last golden vestiges of the setting sun. Departure had been delayed a bit while we waited for some thunderstorms north of the airport to move east and out of the way.
After takeoff, we were greeted by smooth air and a spectacular light show from the lightning that still exploded within the distant clouds. No one spoke much, enthralled as we were with the magnificent forces being unleashed.
As we approached our destination, I contacted Orlando Approach for flight following and, I hoped, a shortcut through the Class B airspace. I got one out of two and, as it turned out, couldnt have been happier.
I was vectored around the west side of the Bravo airspace and instructed to descend below 1,600 feet to remain clear. As I descended, I saw the lights up ahead that clearly outlined central Floridas tourist district.
We were about two miles south of the attractions, as theyre affectionately known by locals, when the kind-hearted controller gave me a heading. As I rolled out of the turn, we got another light show.
The fireworks display from Walt Disney World lit up the sky below us, small puffs of light springing from the ground like hyperactive dandelions. In the right seat, my wife started humming Its a Small World, and somehow that seemed perfect.
After that, it seemed like the rest of the trip would have to be anticlimactic. On a right downwind to runway 25, I reduced power and configured the little Piper for landing. When the time was right, I turned right base.
After a few seconds, I glanced out the right side window to judge the turn to final, and saw absolutely nothing. For two fleeting seconds my heart was in my throat and I had a sudden and overwhelming sensation of dizziness.
Just as quickly, I remembered the small lake off the approach end of 25 and realized my view out the window had been down into that lake. A switch of the head and the runway lights welcomed me down.
The amazing part about the flight was how quickly the disorientation came when I didnt see what I expected to see – when I saw nothing at all. I like to think the rising panic would have been transitory even if I hadnt acquired the runway right away.
Funny, though, how a flight defined by the light shows is now a memory categorized by the darkness.