Sunday, September 16, 2012

Night Flight

When I look at my old pilot’s log book I remember all my time aloft as happy times high above the countryside with incredible views out the cockpit windows, especially when flying aircraft with Plexiglas canopies. One of my favorite memories was an early flight in a T-34 out of NAS Corpus Christi when my departure route took me low over a bridge and I spotted a car full of kids waving frantically. The sliding part of the cockpit was open and much to my chagrin; I attempted to wave back only to be rudely introduced to the 200 MPH slipstream just outside the glass. I can tell you that was a learning experience.

When asked about my favorite flight one that always comes to mind was one that I took for a sad reason, the funeral of one of my uncles. That morning I flew a Cessna 206 from Columbia Metropolitan Airport to Herlong Field just southwest of Jacksonville, FL. My uncle was retired from the Navy and had close friends all over the country. During the family gathering after the funeral, my aunt introduced me to a friend who lived in Atlanta. My mother came up to me a little later and told me that my aunt wanted me to fly their friend home to Atlanta on my way back to Columbia and that I really needed to do that. Despite the fact that Atlanta was almost 200 miles out of my way I agreed.

Left: Cessna 206. We took off at sunset on a clear cold winter evening. Despite the good flying weather, I filed an instrument flight plan in order to place the entire flight under air traffic control. I did that because I wanted to stay clear of the Atlanta Hartsfield airport control zone. So the flight plan I filed was to Macon GA, southeast of Atlanta and then directly to Norcross VOR a navigation station northeast of Atlanta and from there to Peachtree – DeKalb (PDK) Airport, one that I had flown in and out of on several occasions. It was a beautiful serene night and my passenger and I were cheered by the lights of the towns in southern Georgia as they passed under-wing as we made our way to Macon.

Macon is where it all changed. Instead of getting a clearance to the Norcross VOR as planned, I was turned over to Atlanta approach control and told to fly to Rex VOR. Now for those of you who have flown into Hartsfield, Rex VOR is that funny looking building that looks like a witch’s hat that is between the runways right there in the middle of the airport. “Oh No!” I thought. “This is not what I wanted.” When I questioned Atlanta Approach about the route change, they assured me that this was the safer route. I would be at 4,000 above the airport and everyone else was going to be much higher or lower than I was going to be. As we approached the airfield, I could see that they were right. It was approaching 11 pm one of the busiest times of the night for the airport. I have never seen so many airplanes in the sky, their lights all strung out like strings of pearls as they followed the approach and departure patterns. And here we were right in the middle of it and yet not a part of it as we banked to the right directly over the airport and headed out to the smaller airport 35 miles away already visible in the darker sky.

After dropping my passenger off, I quickly got back in the air since PDK tower closes at 11. As soon as I cleared the ground, I was handed off to Atlanta Departure and then a few minutes later, Jacksonville Center, as I climbed out to the east, headed to my assigned altitude of 8,000 and Columbia 185 miles to the east. Back in those days, there was not as much pollution in the air as today. I quickly realized that I could see most of southern North Carolina and literally all of South Carolina. Yup, there was Asheville, Charlotte, Greenville, and Spartanburg to my left, to the right was Augusta and Savannah, and Columbia, Florence, the Grand Strand and Charleston were visible through the wide windshield. Of course all the smaller towns filled the space between. It was like flying over a carpet of light all shining brightly, twinkling gaily in the cool crisp air. As I approached the Savannah River Jacksonville handed me off to Columbia Approach Control so they could concentrate on the air traffic load they had at higher altitudes. I was greeted by the familiar voice of one of my friends in the tower at Columbia when I was still 75 miles from the airport. He asked me if I could see the airport already, and I asked him to turn on the “rabbit” those lights that flash sequentially pointing to the end of the runway. To my surprise, I could see the lights and since I was the only plane headed to Columbia at that time, he cleared me for a landing while I was still over 70 miles from the end of the runway. He went back to the book he was reading and I had a long quiet approach where I could enjoy the beautiful night sky and the lights thinking of my uncle and my family. The stars above and the lights below almost coalesced into a globe of stars all around me. It was almost like piloting a starship across the cosmos. Soon I was crossing over the runway threshold en-route to a kiss-the-tires landing and a quiet taxi back to the tie down spot assigned to the airplane. Four hours, including time on the ground in Atlanta, a magical evening that will last until the end of time in my memory. Oh MY!

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