I was busy over the weekend for a wedding but on Monday evening the weather was perfect. I needed to regain my night currency which is required to carry passengers more than an hour after sunset. To be night current requires three full stop landings and takeoffs more than an hour after sunset in the last 90 days.
Since the plane is temporarily based at Fitchburg airport I headed over there after work on Monday. I missed my chance to have the plane fueled full serve at Fitchburg so with the sun setting in the sky I departed for Concord airport in New Hampshire. They have 24 hour self serve in a reasonably well lit spot on the ramp (you pay with your credit card on an automated kiosk, similar to an auto gas station pump).
The airport was quiet when I arrived and taxied up to the pumps. As I perched on top of the ladder fueling (complications of the high wing aircraft!) I spotted a helicopter take off from the NH Army National Guard hangar across the field. It departed to the south but it seemed to leave something slowly descending and rapidly blinking. On closer inspection this was a person doing a night parachute jump! Very cool to watch.
I headed back and by the time I was nearing Fitchburg it was already more than an hour after sunset. Night flying is nice but very different from the day. Everything looks different and even the instruments require different skills to read under the dim light. The air is usually very smooth and winds calm.
Fitchburg was deserted as I came in. I remembered that unlike most airports the frequency to control the Pilot Controlled lighting (123.0) is different from the Advisory Frequency (122.7). With the airport lights now on I overflew midfield and entered a downwind for runway 32. Unlike Nashua Fitchburg does not have a visual approach slope guidance system for runway 32 so my dark adjusted eyes on the dim runway edge and threshold lights were my sole guidance for approaching the airport.
Despite this my approach was very good and I judged the flare nicely based on the smooth landing that resulted. Of course, winds were light as is typical at night. I turned off at the taxiway and taxied back to 32 for another round.
The night currency requirement specifies takeoffs and landings for good reason. A night takeoff is substantially different from the day. Lined up on the runway I use the edge lights and the landing light on the center line markings to stay on the centerline during the takeoff roll. Once you reach rotation speed and pitch up you lose a lot of visual reference. It is dark out there past the end of the runway! The attitude indicator gets added into my scan to verify the appropriate amount of nose up pitch cross checked against vertical speed and airspeed.
Each time I came around to land my landings were good. After the required three I was feeling comfortable enough to taxi back to the ramp for what is often the hardest challenge of night flying… night parking! This was made worse by the fact that my spot was unfamiliar to me but fortunately the plane that was parked next to me before was still there which made it easy to find the spot.
Once the engine is shut down in front of the parking spot I pushed it back. One useful trick for pushing the plane back at night is to place a dim flashlight on the tail tie down spot. This makes it easy to see where you should be aiming the tail as you push the plane back and steer with the towbar. I even managed to get it pushed back right on the first try.
As the days get shorter I am very happy to have regained my night currency. Doing it without visual approach slope guidance was a good challenge combined with the reasonably long runway at Fitchburg. Often I’ve done my night practice at Manchester which is nice but the centerline lights, approach lights, and super wide and long runway can be the easy way out. Night flying is a lot of fun and I hope to do more soon, this time with a passenger!