Night Fright

Hypoxia is my only explanation for my loss of an hour or so


After a 20-year hiatus, I returned to flying a couple of years ago and try to fly as often as I am able.

I filed for a 2:00 p.m. departure from New Orleans Lakefront to St Louis Downtown Airport but, as I drove to the airport, it was apparent that I would be delayed by some heavy thunderstorms that moved into the New Orleans area and seemed intent on staying for awhile.

I spent the time at the airport watching the radar and talking with some Navy pilots who were on a training mission and planning their return to Texas.

At about 5:30 p.m., the storms were clearing from west to east and, after discussing it with a briefer, I decided to depart toward the northwest with a turn to the north after 20 miles or so. I got airborne at 6:00 p.m. for the four-hour flight to St. Louis. (Interestingly, the Navy pilots had decided to wait until the next morning; pleased, I suspected, with the prospect of another night in the French Quarter.)

I had filed for 8,000 but that put me at the top of one of the cloud layers. I asked for 10,000, which was granted immediately. The Stormscope was showing lots of activity to the south and southeast but nothing ahead and I settled in for the trip as night descended.

While I do not do a lot of night flying, I am comfortable with the dark, keep three flashlights on board and maintain currency for night landings.

The Piper Arrow has two wing tanks, which need to be switched at regular intervals. My practice is to change tanks every 40 minutes so that the third change always occurs two hours after departure and the sixth will occur at four hours – my personal maximum flying time on full tanks, which have about a five-hour duration.

Just north of Memphis, I made what I thought was my third tank change, but then I realized that it was 9:00 p.m. rather than 8:00 p.m., and that I had no idea what had happened to the changes during the extra hour.

The gauges were each reading about half full and I continued to CPS making changes every 40 minutes and monitoring the gauges closely.

I have given that flight a lot of thought. I am comfortable that I was fully awake for the entire trip because I was continuously in contact with ATC, monitoring VORs and alternate airports against the GPS and comparing ETE to planned time en route.

Nonetheless, my day had begun at 6:00 a.m., it was a dark and peaceful night and I was at 10,000 feet. I have read often about the affects of hypoxia (particularly at night) but have never felt that my judgment or effectiveness was impaired by altitude.

However, hypoxia is my only explanation for my loss of an hour or so and it will clearly cause some changes in the way that I approach night flying. Among the changes will be to fly at a lower altitude at night, use a timer to monitor fuel changes, purchase a supplemental oxygen system and maintain a keen awareness of getting too relaxed at high altitudes.

Some other lessons to consider: While hypoxia may have been to blame, dont necessarily discount fatigue. Anyone whos embarked on long-distance travel, even by car, has experienced that blissful state of half-awake where you can function without much cognition going on.


3 or 30, Whats the Diff?
I was a student pilot planning a solo cross-country trip in an Aeronca Champ in the mountains of West Virginia. Flying from Morgantown to Elkins and back on a summer day with unlimited ceiling and visibility and no wind would be nothing short of pure, undiluted pleasure – or so I had every reason to think.

The preflight with my instructor had gone well and all systems were go. I say all systems a bit tongue in cheek. This was back in the 50s and the only systems this Champ had were a throttle, carburetor heat, airspeed indicator, altimeter, a turn-and-slip indicator and a wet compass. No directional gyro, no VHF receiver, no ADF, no radio.

I took off from runway 18 at Morgantown and turned slightly to pick up my magnetic course of 183 degrees. A mere 50 minutes later I was on the ground at Elkins, feeling very much the pilot-in-command. I considered refueling at Elkins, but in light of the ideal flying conditions decided I didnt need more fuel for such a short return trip.

After getting a hand-prop from one of the local guys, I headed back to Morgantown.

My return trip, of course, was the reciprocal of my outbound heading, so as I climbed to cruising altitude I turned until the compass indicated 3 and lit up a cigarette. (Remember, this was back when you were allowed to smoke in airplanes.)

Forty minutes later I started looking for Morgantown. After 50 minutes my palms started to sweat and I felt the beginnings of panic as I realized I was lost – and over mountainous terrain at that.

I stayed on course, thinking that maybe I had encountered some kind of phantom headwind and Morgantown was still ahead. No such luck. As I droned along, nothing on the ground was at all familiar.

After an hour and a half in the air on what should have been a 50-minute flight, I decided in desperation to cross the ridge on my left. If I didnt find my way to an airport soon, Id be faced with putting the thing down somewhere, probably in the trees.

It seemed to take forever to cross that ridge, but when I did I could spot beautiful Morgantown, 20 miles behind me to the left. The trip had taken twice as long as planned and my instructor had been ready to call out the Civil Air Patrol.

My error, of course, was obvious in retrospect. My intended magnetic course was 3 degrees, not 30 degrees. When I carelessly set up the 3 on the compass, I was actually flying a course 27 degrees to the right of where I should have been, which kept me on the wrong side of ridge and concealed Morgantown from view.

Recognizing what had gone wrong underscored once more how easily a critical mistake can be made in flying if careful attention is not paid to even the most obvious of details.

Some other lessons to consider: This was a long-ago incident, and youve surely learned by then the importance of backing up ded reckoning with pilotage, at the very least, if not adding electronic navigation of some kind.In addition, we hope youve kicked that smoking thing.


Reach Out and Touch Someone
It was a beautiful summer day in Santa Barbara. My friend and I had a nice lunch at the airport and were departing, with him flying and me enjoying the ride.

After takeoff, we climbed to altitude and made a left turn back toward Los Angeles and home. Then my friend stuck his head up his instrument panel.

Just what he was concerned about or why I never found out, because just then a large – and very, very close – twin Beech came closing in on the Santa Barbara airport. It was close enough for me to see a wide-eyed passenger in the other airplanes right seat and that airplanes pilot with his head up his instrument panel, too.

I did not swear. I did not scream or should. No one died from outrage or any other cause.

My friendship with my pilot was wounded, but not fatally so. But it makes me wonder: What do many pilots find so fascinating about an instrument panel on beautiful flying days?

Two thoughts: If you cant see whats around you, you might as well be in a submarine and if you do not look around, you may not be around.

Other lessons to consider: Close calls often are difficult to either explain or understand. We share your consternation about panel envy, but we can see some circumstances under which its a necessary evil – yes, even on beautiful flying days. Chief among them is that Southern Californias amazing mix of airspace can turn a moving map into a pilots best friend. Thats no excuse for fixating on the $30,000 worth of electronics on display … but hey, maybe thats another reason pilots keep their eyes inside.


Which Airplane is This?
I bought a Maule MX7-180C to finish my private certificate training, believing that learning conventional gear would hone my flying skills. The airplane was wonderful and I was proud to have gotten my ticket in a tailwheel aircraft.

My father, a retired naval pilot, was very skeptical, saying, Theres a reason they invented tricycle gear. Youll kill yourself in that thing. Ill sell you a real airplane.

He had just had a factory reman put in his Cessna TU206G and made me an offer I couldnt refuse. I put the Maule up for sale and focused on flying the Cessna.

The insurance company required me to fly 50 hours of dual in the Cessna. Meanwhile, the Maule went into the shop for its annual and was there for a month.

When the annual was done, the mechanic asked me for a ride since hed never flown in a Maule. It was 6 pm on a clear day, with a light seven-knot crosswind, and we flew for a while with no problem. When we landed, I came in tail up in an inadvertent wheel landing. When the tail dropped the wings increased angle of attack made the airplane hop and the crosswind caught it.

I was a second too late on the rudder but the situation didnt seem too bad – until it went totally out of control. I was amazed at how quickly and viciously the groundloop developed.

It seemed like slow motion, but we spun off the runway and came to rest with a bent wing tip, prop strike and main gear damage. The insurance company paid $10,000 to fix it. I lost an infinite amount of pride, plus $15,000 in resale value due to the recent damage history.

After the fact, I realized a few things. I hadnt eaten all day, and Im sure that, although I felt fine, my body was not up to par physiologically.

In addition, a logbook review revealed 10 hours in the Maule in the last three months, compared to more than 60 in the Cessna. Tailwheel skills fade fast if they were recently acquired, and for me it was compounded by all of the recent trike flying. I landed the Maule in a tricycle-type attitude and flare.

If youre feeling a bit rusty in a taildragger, get some dual until you feel a little more comfortable. Its safer and cheaper.


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