A Long Day's Journey Into Night

Racing for daylight, Lane confronts the familiar go/no-go decision and decides to do both.

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Color_LaneF

"If we don't start moving soon," I find myself thinking as my frustration simmers into overboil, "I swear to God I'm going to scream."

I'm sitting in the middle of the I-580 freeway, which currently looks more like a big valet parking lot that just happens to be four traffic lanes wide. I've been on the road for over two hours, trying to go a distance that normally takes a third of that time. In the past 20 minutes, we've moved no more than 100 yards. And as I watch helplessly from a sea of cars in a canyon with no other exit or options, the sun is moving steadily lower and lower in the sky.

It started out to be such a great afternoon. It was a perfect late fall flying day-clear blue sky, no clouds, warm temperatures and a golden glow over the California hills. So my great, wonderful plan was to finish work early and fly over to my friend Kimberly's for a fun dinner party and overnight visit. I even planned to get there in time to help her cook.

Of course, in the way of all great plans, life didn't quite follow the script. I didn't get my work done until almost 2 p.m. But I still figured I had plenty of time. Kimberly's runway doesn't have lights, and it's situated in an isolated area at the base of the Sierra foothills. So you have to land there before dark. But to do that, I only had to be wheels up by 4:15 p.m. And the Livermore Airport is only about a 40-minute drive from my house. Even in rush-hour traffic, it's never taken me more than an hour and a half to get there.

The minor detail I'd forgotten in all that planning, however, was the fact that it was a major holiday weekend. And in Los Angeles or San Francisco, that means if you're not on the roads out of town by 1 p.m., you should probably just stay home. But by the time I realized my mistake, I was halfway to the airport and too stubborn and annoyed to turn around. I'd just will the traffic to move fast enough for me to get there in time.

Unfortunately, the universe didn't see fit to cooperate. I tried side roads. I tried the fast lane. I tried shortcuts. But by the time I got to the airport, finished the world's most efficient preflight (the fact that I'd just gone flying the day before helped) and jumped into the cockpit, it was still 4:45 p.m. Half an hour past deadline.

Damn.

I called Kimberly on my cell phone to double-check the "truly dark" time there. Kimberly estimated it was about 25 minutes away-or 14 minutes before I'd get there, according to my GPS.

"Well, maybe if you fly full-throttle and get a tailwind…?" Kimberly offered hopefully.

For a brief span of moments, I considered it. I really wanted to get there for dinner. And I wanted to believe I could somehow make this day turn out the way I'd envisioned it. Adding to the equation was the fact that there weren't a lot of good, easy alternatives. The closest public airport to Kimberly's place had been closed for night operations by the FAA about a year earlier. The only other nearby airport with lights was tucked up in the Sierra foothills surrounded by unpopulated (read: dark) terrain.

After only a brief struggle, the safety captain part of my brain won out. Sometimes surrender is the better part of valor-especially in the face of immutable laws like the rotation of the Earth. All the wishing in the world wasn't going to convince the sky to stay light for 14 extra minutes. And flying into the Sierra foothills in the dark would be just plain stupid.

"No, Kimberly. I'm not going to make it," I said reluctantly. "Now, what?"

We finally decided that I'd fly to Mather Airport, which, until recently, was an Air Force base. It meant a 40-minute drive for Kimberly. It would also be something of a challenge for me, because I'd never been in there before, and I'd be trying to find it for the first time in the dark. But it was the best, safest option we had.

As I put away the phone, I tried to readjust my thinking. I hadn't planned on a night flight. In point of fact, I hardly ever plan on a night flight. Maybe it's my background in old airplanes, but I don't like giving up the margin of safety that comes with being able to see potential landing sites in case of trouble. I dug out a flashlight, checked the panel lights, wrote down the frequencies I'd need, and then decided to beat feet into the sky to get as far as I could before full darkness caught up with me.

Heading east from Livermore, throttle set exactly on my 2700 rpm redline, I find myself unconsciously leaning forward, as if that might make the Cheetah go just that little extra bit faster. I force myself to sit back and relax. Pedaling isn't going to help. And yet, I feel somehow as if I really am in a race, trying desperately to outpace this shadow of night that's already in front of me and is catching me from behind, as well.

The dark is gaining. Slowly but surely, the hills and flatlands are fading into blue and violet mist, swallowing all the detailed landmarks I know, one by one, until the world itself drops away into a sea of deepening emptiness. Farmland doesn't emit much light. I check Sacramento's ATIS again, just to make sure it's still VFR. I have more than five miles, but it might as well be five million to the next light or recognizable landmark.

Finally, like Brigadoon emerging from the past, a faint halo of lights appears in the distant haze. Sacramento apparently still exists. That's good. But of greater importance are four sets of flashing strobe lights I now see ahead of me. The towers. Sacramento has four disturbingly tall radio towers directly in line with my course from Livermore to Mather. I check my sectional. The chart lists their altitude as 2,000 feet. My altimeter is reading almost 1,000 feet above that. They shouldn't be a factor.

But my eyes don't agree with the numbers on the chart. Those strobe lights look taller, not shorter, than my altitude. I hold course as I move closer to them, knowing in my rational mind that the chart has to be correct. It must be an illusion. But as the illusion lingers, I finally lose my nerve and bank left. Peace of mind, I decide, is worth three more minutes of flying time, even if I know I'm being silly.

The towers behind me, I start looking for recognizable patterns or landmarks in the distant lights. In theory, the yellow marks on the chart should match the appearance of Sacramento at night. I look at the light patterns ahead and compare them to my sectional to try to discern Mather's location. But they don't seem to match. Maybe the sectional was drawn from a different angle or altitude. In any event, it's going to be of marginal use. And there's no VOR at Mather.

Not that I'm without resources. I could intersect and follow a VOR radial to Mather, if I had to. But my Garmin 295 GPS also has Mather locked in, dead ahead, and I fall in love with the little unit all over again as I narrow my search for beacons and black spots to the area in front of the Cheetah's nose. Sacramento has several airport beacons I can see, and even more black spots. But there's a beacon pretty much straight off my nose that I can see now, close to a fairly large black hole in the lights. I start my descent, trusting that an airport will eventually appear somewhere in that hole.

Night VFR flying, I realize, requires far more trust than daytime VFR. No wonder I don't do it more often. Yes, the air traffic control system is still there to call on if need be. But without the ability to scout landing sites and verify ground references with my own eyes, I simply have to trust that my engine won't quit. That my electronic navigation instruments are correct. That those towers really are lower than my airplane. That a runway really will appear if I keep descending toward that black void ahead. And that the runway, if and when it appears, will be the correct one.

Seven miles out, there's still no sign of a runway. Finally, at three miles, the faint lights of two long parallel runways appear that match the layout and compass heading for Mather. But the challenges of my night flight are far from over. My pattern feels all wrong, which I finally realize is because the tower has given me a runway with a quartering tailwind. There's also no VASI to help my approach, so the landing isn't one of my best. But it's after I'm down that the fun really begins.

The tower tells me to turn right at the next taxiway. I see a sign for taxiway Delta but no sign of the taxiway itself. Mather doesn't seem to have any taxiway lighting. There's just a lot of black nothingness to my right. And at a former Air Force bomber base, "a lot" can take on a whole new meaning. I call the tower for help. The controller tells me to turn right "anywhere there." Hmm. Maybe the taxiways here are really wide.

I turn to the right and my landing light illuminates a grass berm on the far side of a muddy dip. Definitely not a taxiway. I turn back to the runway and move cautiously along its edge, searching for some sign of a taxiway. The tower controller tells me to expedite my exit. She has a DC-8 on final. I bite my tongue and tell her I'm doing my best.

I manage to find the taxiway, turn on it, and try to call ground. No one answers. I switch back to the tower frequency, but Mather, which is now a cargo airport, has hit a rush time. I can't get a word in edgewise. I hear the controller clear a landing aircraft to cross Runway 22L at Delta. I turn around and see three large landing lights getting ready to swallow my Cheetah alive.

Eventually, I get a ground controller on the radio and ask for progressive taxi instructions to the Trajen FBO, explaining, "It's my first time here. And it's dark." Even as I say it, I'm embarrassed. Of course it's dark. They know it's dark. But, well, some taxiway lights would certainly help.

The controller tells me to follow a parallel taxiway and then, as I spot Trajen's sign across a huge stretch of unlit tarmac, tells me to turn left "anywhere there." I look left and begin to form some definite opinions about these "turn anywhere" clearances, as well as the ground awareness of Mather's controllers. For looming above me, large as a warehouse, is a parked, 747 freighter. Somehow, I doubt the controller really wants me to try to sneak underneath its fuselage.

Finally, after sniff-checking my way across and around the darkened ramp, I find a parking spot and shut down. Kimberly arrives a few minutes later and, as we head off toward an only-slightly-delayed dinner, I take quick stock of the last few hours. I lost my race against time and the dark, and I'd probably rate my struggles with Mather as something of a tie. But as Kimberly eases back into the holiday rush hour traffic, I think about all my road companions back in Livermore, who are probably still somewhere west of Stockton. Even with all that didn't go my way, I'm still hours ahead of where I'd be if I didn't have a "get-out-of-traffic-free" card called an airplane.

I smile as I contemplate that thought. Maybe I didn't beat the dark. But I still beat the traffic. And that, I decide, is enough of a victory for me.