The Fine Print

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The evening’s mission was to fly myself and a colleague to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to attend a meeting the following morning. It was winter, with early sunsets, and we didn’t get airborne until well after dark, but I was night current, thanks to doing my instrument training at night, after work. I was close, but not ready for the rating checkride. A high overcast meant this VFR-only hop would be in dark night conditions, but the abundant ground lighting provided ample information on which way was up. The flight to IPT was uneventful and soon I had the destination airport in sight. We were the only aircraft at the then-non-towered airport. Winds were fairly strong and steady out of the north, so I chose Runway 30.

Maneuvering to enter the left downwind, I noticed the surface lights on a nearby ridge were really close. They distracted me and kept me high, but I didn’t think about it enough to extend the downwind to allow for a descent from the higher altitude. On final, I was way too high and fast for the Cherokee I was flying to get down and stopped, so I went around. Rejoining the left downwind, I slowed down and stayed about the same distance from the ridge as before. Extending the downwind slightly, I managed to convince the Cherokee to slow down and get down well enough that we made a decent landing, never mind that we used most of the runway.

The next day, after our meeting, we returned to the airport and were chatting with others in the FBO. In daylight, the ridge’s proximity to the runway was even more apparent and came up in the conversation. I wondered aloud about how close-in one needs to be to the runway for the left downwind. Which is when I was calmly informed that Runway 30’s pattern was to make right turns.

I was about as current as it gets, thanks to my night instrument training, and had something of an attitude, so I hadn’t done the due diligence necessary to fly into a strange airport at night. If I had looked closely at the chart or a flight data publication, I would have seen the note clearly stating Runway 30 was right traffic.

The lesson is to read the fine print, even if you think you know everything.

Learning Experience

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