Night XC, Tailwind TO, and a Race Home

Tonight was the night to knock out my night XC requirement and get in the last four of my ten night landings. I had told my CFI that I wanted to go someplace I hadn’t been so he told me to pick an airport, towered or non-towered. It needed to…

Written by
Richard Brown
Published on
3 Aug 2016

Tonight was the night to knock out my night XC requirement and get in the last four of my ten night landings. I had told my CFI that I wanted to go someplace I hadn’t been so he told me to pick an airport, towered or non-towered. It needed to be at least 50 n.m. away so that it would meet the 100 n.m. round trip requirement. I took a look at airports in the 50-60 n.m. range from CNO and decided it would be fun to fly to Thermal (TRM) just because the field elevation is 115′ below sea level. Really, who doesn’t want to land below sea level?

My CFI said TRM would be fine, but that I needed to pay attention to the forecast and watch for Convective SIGMET’s (which signal that there could be severe turbulence, icing, low level wind shear, and/or thunderstorms which have a tendency to cause all of the above). This time of year Convective SIGMET’s are common over the desert in the afternoon because of the humidity combining with the heat, and you want to stay at least 40 n.m away.

I prepared my flight plans to/from TRM as well as plans to RNM (Ramona) and CRQ (Palomar) just in case. But, I was crossing my fingers for good weather.

It was a busy night making flight plans the night before because I also needed to put together my revised flight plans for my long XC to CMA (Camarillo) and SBA (Santa Barbara). The problem is that my CFI will be on a flight when I do my XC on Saturday and Sunday so I needed him to sign my endorsement for my long XC when I saw him tonight. Without that endorsement I wouldn’t be able to go on the flight Sunday.

I got to the airport, we went over my plans for Sunday, and he signed the endorsement in my logbook for my long XC. He also signed my endorsement for my XC on Saturday giving me the option of going to either CRQ or RNM just in case Palomar was socked in with a marine layer.

I pulled up the weather and it was clear, no SIGMET’s out by TRM so weather wasn’t going to be a factor. There was a NOTAM saying the main runway there was closed and scheduled to reopen before we would get there. Even if it didn’t reopen we would be able to land on the other runway.

I did the pre-flight on the plane, we climbed in, buckled up, started the engine, and headed down towards the end of hanger row. It was a quiet evening with one controller handling both ground and tower. It was around 80° F outside which was a nice departure from the 90-100° that I’ve been seeing in the daytime. The tower handled my request for Flight Following and assigned my squawk before take off.

With the cooler weather we rolled off the runway nice and smooth and began the climb out. Shortly after turning downwind to head East I was talking with SOCAL Approach and they cleared us to climb through ONT’s Class C shelf to our cruising altitude of 5,500′.

I really like flying at night. It’s cooler, the skies are less crowded, and the city lights are beautiful. I turned to my heading and it was easy to pick out landmarks like the Riverside Auto Mall and see the 60 freeway stretching off to the East. The mountains on each side of the pass going into Palm Springs rise to 11,000′ but there is plenty of space to navigate the pass. Even though we could only see a little bit of the outline of the mountains ahead, there was nothing to worry about as long as we stayed over Interstate 10 heading through the pass. We were at 5,500 and the huge wind farm that covers most of the ground through the pass only reaches up to about 1,900′. We also had almost 6 n.m. of space between where the hills on either side rise above our altitude. As long as you know where you are, your altitude, the elevation of the ground where you are, and the elevation where you’re heading, you’re going to be okay at night.

As we flew through the pass I started losing some altitude, about 200′ in short order. I looked over and my RPM had dropped so I added in some power and climbed back up. Not much time had passed before I heard and felt my RPM’s jumping up so I backed out on the power. While this was happening we were bouncing around quite a bit which was expected. The changes in the winds as we went through the pass had caused the fluctuations in the RPM’s. The other thing we experienced as we went through the pass was the temperature went from the mid 80’s to over 100°. +100° well after the sun has gone down, that’s something I don’t miss from my days living in Phoenix…

As were handed off to the last Approach before we would get to Thermal the following conversation took place:

Me: “SOCAL Approach, Cherokee 5800Uniform, level at 5,500′.”
SOCAL: “00Uniform, be advised runways 17 and 35 are still closed. Which runway do you intend on using?”
(Well there’s only one other runway…probably that one…)
Me: “Stand by, (As we pull up the AWOS for TRM to find out what the winds are) We will use 30.”
SOCAL: “Copy.”
CFI: (to me) “He doesn’t really care whether you were going to use 12 or 30, just wanted to make sure you knew of the closure.”

We could see the beacon for TRM all the way across the valley from about 25 n.m. away. I decided to enter the left downwind since we were coming in from the northwest. TRM is non-towered so I began making my radio calls when we were about 10 n.m out. The runway was easy enough to see and I brought us around for a nice easy landing and exited the runway at the first taxiway (with a little chirping from the wheels as I turned off given that we were still slowing down…) I was a little bummed that even though we were at -115′ elevation the altimeter stopped at zero… 🙁

We taxied back to the head of 30, and then some. You see the lights on the taxiways were not terribly bright, the taxiway continued on well past the top of 30 to meet up with a different taxiway, and the light in the sign for the top of 30 was blinking on and off. Add it all together and I missed my turn… At the next intersection of taxiways I turned us around and we went back to the head of runway 30 and stopped at the hold short line.

The missed turn actually turned out to be a good thing because by this point there were two other planes on the frequency inbound for landings. The only issue was they were inbound on runway 12 and we were going to be departing runway 30. I should mention that the winds were 330 at 8 knots, hence the reason we landed on 30 and we were going to take off on 30.

The planes inbound were a Citation Jet and a Cessna. I understand that the Citation Jet thought it would be easier to just make a straight in approach to 12 even with an almost 8 knot tailwind, but still can’t understand why the Cessna was being so lazy. The radio conversation was entertaining. I don’t remember the tail numbers or altitudes of their initial calls, but the distances and the rest of it was unforgettable.

Cessna: “Thermal traffic, Cessna xxxx at xxxx’ on an 8 mile final straight in for runway 12, Thermal traffic.”
Citation: “Thermal traffic, Citation xxxx at xxxx’ on a 10 mile final straight in for runway 12, Thermal traffic.”
Cessna: (Moving much slower than the jet) “I guess I will be #2 to land and you will be #1.”
Citation: (I am sure with a smirk on his face) “Yes I will.”

It was a lovely 105° on the ground and I asked my CFI if he thought we could take off with the tailwind and if he wanted to just taxi to the head of 12 since they were going to be a few minutes and would want to exit right where we were anyway. With the 4,995′ runway he said we would be fine so we taxied down to 12 and watched the Citation touch down and exit the runway. The Cessna was still quite a way behind the Citation and we watched as he floated half-way down the runway before finally touching down courtesy of the tailwind that he decided to land with…

After he was clear we took the runway and I pushed the throttle all the way in. As I said, it was a 4,995′ runway, but I think we used up close to 4,000′ of it before we were off the ground. The lights at the end of the runway were coming closer and closer so I just kept pulling back until we lifted off. The climb out was slow and we went a little ways upwind (really downwind) before turning crosswind and then towards the northwest to head back.

With the hot temp outside, the engine temperature kept climbing and finally leveled off just below the red. As we continued our climb and the outside temperature started going down the engine temperature began to go back down as well.

I should mention that the whole time we were listening to the Cessna my CFI was convinced that he recognized the tail number from a different school there at CNO. We are listening to the radio and figure that he is going to just turn around and take off on 30 into the wind but no, he taxis all the way down to 12 and takes off with the tailwind. We switched over to SOCAL to ask for flight following and wondered how the Cessna had fared taking off.

Eventually we heard the Cessna join the frequency and my CFI’s suspicions were confirmed.

Cessna: “SOCAL Approach, Cessna xxxx northwest of Thermal, requesting Flight Following to Chino.”
(The next bit of the conversation just took place between my CFI and myself)
CFI: “I knew it! Those guys ripped off our flight plan. What are the odds that they would decide to fly to Thermal right behind us?”
(He had a point. If they were trying to get in their night XC they could have gone to El Monte, Ramona, Palomar, and even going the same direction there was Palm Springs which was an easy one to land at and far enough for the requirement. Even Bermuda Dunes comes after Palm Springs and before Thermal. Yet they had basically followed us to Thermal from Chino.)
CFI: “They got there soon enough after us that they must have already been in their plane and heard us asking Ground at CNO for Flight Following to Thermal and said ‘Hey, that sounds good, let’s go there too.’ We can’t let them pass us on the way back.”
Me: “How fast is their Cessna?” (Knowing that we are in a not so fast Cherokee)
CFI: “I don’t know, but we can’t let them get back first.”

Instead of climbing to 6,500′ for the return trip we leveled off at 4,500′. That was still plenty of altitude for going through the pass and over the hills on the way back, it helped to cool down the engine more by leveling off, and it didn’t waste precious time/speed in the climb (considering we were now trying to get back to CNO before a Cessna which we had no knowledge of how fast it was going to be flying). We left the power in at 2,400 RPM instead of backing it off to 2,300 RPM, and hoped we had the faster plane. For awhile we could see them off around our 7-8 o’clock but eventually they ended up directly behind us so we didn’t know if they were gaining on us or not. We did develop a decent idea of where they were as we would get handed off to the next Approach and hear them join shortly after that. Rather than tracking along the 60 freeway I instead picked a heading directly toward CNO.

There is plenty of time for conversations on longer flights. I won’t at this point name the other flight school to protect the innocent/guilty. I will disclose that I am taking my lessons through DuBois and I can’t say enough good things about the school.

CFI: “Did I ever tell you about barely missing a mid-air collision?”
Me: “Nope.”
CFI: “It was a CFI and student from xxxx.” (The same school we were trying to beat back to CNO.)
Me: “What happened?”
CFI: “It was the classic low wing/high wing situation. I was in a Cherokee on final for 26r and they were in a Cessna on final for 26L. I was a little above them so neither of us could see the other. Just then he decides to do a 360° turn to the RIGHT! Who in the world would ever do a right 360 when you are on approach to the left runway of parallel runways? The tower started screaming at them and yelling at me to go-around. I don’t know exactly how close we came, but when I got on the ground the tower gave me their tail number and told me they would be filing a complaint with the FAA and if I wanted to I should as well.
Me: “Seriously?”
CFI: “Yep, and there was a CFI in that plane.” (Short pause) “We have to beat them back…”
(Nothing quite like a little history to generate some friendly competition…)

The tower was closed at CNO so I got some more practice making radio calls on non-towered fields. The winds were 250 at 10, coming almost straight down runway 26R and it made for a nice smooth landing. My CFI asked if I wanted to take off and land on runway 21 (I needed two more night landings to get to the required 10) for something a little different. I said sure and we taxied to the top of 21. It turned out we were well ahead of that Cessna because we got to 21 and he was still a little way off on his final for 26R.

Me: “Do you think we can get off before they arrive?”
CFI: “Sure, even if hte tower was open they would let you go, but they would tell you ‘without delay.’ So let’s go without delay.”
Me: “Chino traffic, Cherokee 5800Uniform taking runway 21 for take off with right closed traffic, Chino traffic.”

The plane took off so much nicer with the temperature at 70° in CNO compared to the 105° in TRM with a tailwind. We had a little bit of a crosswind, 6 knots, but not really enough to even notice. I made my radio call and we turned crosswind and they still hadn’t landed. I made my radio call and we turned downwind and they still hadn’t landed.

Me: “How slow are those guys going?”
CFI: “I have no idea…”
Me: “How close are we getting to Ontario’s airspace?” (We were extending out our downwind to give that darn Cessna time to land and clear the runway.)
CFI: “Good question.”
(CNO sits underneath a 2,700′ shelf of ONT’s airspace, but we were headed to where it goes all the way down to the surface.)
CFI: “Go ahead and power back, put in your first notch of flaps, and pull back to slow down even more.”

Finally we  saw them touching down so I turned base and brought us around for a landing. We taxied back to the top of 26R for one more trip around the pattern and then it was back to the hangar.

Flying at night is great. Once that Cessna was gone we had the whole place to ourselves, it was nice and cool out, and the city lights were beautiful.


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