Pattern Work and Airport Hopping at Night

I’m still working on my transition training but starting to feel much more comfortable with the plane. After a few winters here with very little rain, Mother Nature decided that this year was the time to make up for it. It was cloudy and rainy during the day Tuesday but…

Written by
Richard Brown
Published on
11 Jan 2017
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I’m still working on my transition training but starting to feel much more comfortable with the plane. After a few winters here with very little rain, Mother Nature decided that this year was the time to make up for it. It was cloudy and rainy during the day Tuesday but started to clear up a little in the afternoon. I shot a text to my CFI to see what it was like out towards the airport. He said we could give it a try, so after stopping by home to change clothes and grab a quick bite to eat I headed out to the airport.

The skies were still overcast at about 3,500′ above the airport with the clouds hanging lower on the mountains to the south. It was foreboding just about every direction you looked but we decided that we would just do pattern work and if it started to close in or the ceiling started to lower we would quit. I was a little nervous as we took off as over five months had passed since the last time I flew at night. I was glad to have my CFI there in the right seat.

The first time around I came in nice and stable, and then flared a little early, landing with a little bit of a thump. One of the visual illusions of landing at night is that you think you are closer to the ground than you really are. We made five more trips around the pattern and one of the landings was excellent, the other four were just okay.

Going back to the “Old habits are hard to break” saying, I have used “Cherokee” in my radio calls a lot longer and a lot more times than “Mooney.” Tonight it got me on one of the calls. We were getting ready to take the runway and I made my radio call.

Me: “Corona traffic, white and gray Cherokee taking runway 25 for left closed traffic, Corona.”
CFI: Laughing “You said Cherokee.”
Me: “I did?”
CFI: “Yeah”
Me: “Oh, I’ll have to fix that, I don’t want to hurt her (the Mooney’s) feelings… calling her a slow Cherokee…”

By the end of the night I had logged another hour of flight and six night landings to a full stop which brings me current for night flight. With that additional hour I am only 3.8 hours away from flying on my own.

Wednesday the weather was supposed to be better and it was. As I still have not become independently wealthy (and am likely not going to be anytime soon now that I own a plane) I had to go to work during the day, leaving the evening for flying. Today I headed straight to the airport from work so that we could get an earlier start which turned out to be a good thing.

My CFI asked me what I wanted to do and I told him I was thinking of going airport hopping to some places I haven’t been yet. The plan was to go from Corona (KAJO) to San Bernadino (KSBD), then to El Monte (KEMT), and then one more stop to Fullerton (KFUL) before returning to Corona. I thought it would be a good way to work on navigating to different airports as well as enough distance between most of them to have a short climb, followed by setting up for cruise, then configuring for descent and landing. I was looking for the repetition rather than just making one long cross country.

The ceilings were about 4,000 so I planned to fly at 3,000′ from KAJO to KSBD. We took off and climbed out to 3,000′ to pass over Riverside’s airspace and then between Ontario’s and March AFB’s airspace. It wasn’t long before we could see the beacon for KSBD. I called up the tower about 7 miles out and was instructed to enter a left downwind for runway 24 and report downwind. It was quiet on the radio. In fact from my initial contact with the tower to the time we received our frequency change after departing we only heard one other person on the frequency.

We were approaching  on about a 45° and I kept looking for the runway lights to be able to judge where to make my turn downwind. I finally asked my CFI where exactly the runway was and he pointed it out. At that point I realized that I was looking for the runway to be on the far side of the beacon, not the close side. I should have looked closer at the airport diagram before leaving KAJO to know which side of the beacon the runway was on. Another lesson learned.

KSBD has only one runway, however it is big enough to be multiple runways. I don’t know why they have such a large runway, but it is 200′ wide and 10,000′ long. I set it down for a very gentle landing, using up about 1,000′ of the runway in the process but why not, I had 10,000′ to work with. The tower cleared us to taxi back as we were exiting the runway and we taxied to the end and I got set for the next leg. After working with the 60′ wide runway at KAJO the 200′ wide runway was gigantic. We were cleared to depart and I crossed the hold short line looking for the center-line.

Me: “Is that the center-line way out there?”
CFI: “Yep.”
Me: “Wow, looks far enough away to be the other side of the runway.”

We took off and began a climbing turn to the north west. I had asked the tower if he could get us flight following but he said he didn’t have the capability to but that he would give us an early frequency change to contact SoCAL Approach. Once he gave us our frequency change I contacted SoCal to pick up flight following to KEMT. We would be skirting right along the north side of Ontario’s airspace and it’s always nice to have that extra set of eyes looking out for you.

On this leg we were going to navigate along the 210 freeway at 3,500′ which would keep us out of Ontario’s airspace and well away from the mountains to the north. As we flew along it looked like there were some mountains in front of us a little below our altitude. That seemed odd to me as the foothills shouldn’t extend that far out. As we got a little closer I could see that it was just some low lying clouds and we passed over them.

I had picked up the ATIS information for El Monte and SoCal instructed us to contact the tower which I did. Once we were past the clouds we began our descent to El Monte on a modified straight in approach. It was another nice landing and I was feeling pretty good about my flying so far for the night. Again we taxied back and got set up for the next leg to KFUL.

I have been looking forward to landing at KFUL for a long time because it is only a couple of miles from one of the dealerships I’ve been working at for the past 14+ years. I hear the planes taking off from there and flying over the store all day, and I was finally going to be one of them.

The overcast layer was forecast to get lower as the night wore on and it was living up to it. Fortunately these last two legs would be at a lower altitude. As we departed KEMT we began a climb to the south east so that we could line up for Fullerton as well as stay away from the 2,500′ shelf of LAX’s airspace just off our right wing. There were a few very thin clouds that we were passing through in our climb.

Me: “Are we okay flying up through these since they are thin enough I can still see the city lights?”
CFI: “Yeah, that would just be ‘visible moisture’.”

However a couple seconds later we could no longer see the city lights.

CFI: “Now it’s a cloud.”
Me: (Already looking at my instruments) “Do you want me to turn around out of it?”
CFI: “No, it was really thin, just climb through it.”

It wasn’t another two seconds before we were on top of it and maybe a total of four or five seconds of ‘cloud.’ However as we continued on I could see some thicker clouds out in front of us at our same altitude. We could have climbed over them but we really didn’t need the extra altitude as we didn’t have very far to go. Instead I told him I was going to just take us to the east and go around them. One of the nice things about flying around the LA Basin and Orange county at night is that there is so much light coming from the cities that you can see very well, including being able to see clearly the clouds out in front of us.

As we rounded the clouds I could see the beacon for KFUL out in front of us. SoCal had previously terminated our radar services so I called up the tower for clearance. We were given a straight in for runway 24. It was strange coming in to land there, flying over the streets and buildings that I have been driving around for the last 14 years.

Again it was quiet on the radio and as we were rolling out the tower was asking us where we were parking. When I asked him for a taxi back he gave us our taxi clearance before we had even cleared the runway.

After a short stop at the end of the taxiway to get set up for the final leg home I called up the tower. The only other person on the radio the whole time was a maintenance truck driving around some of the taxiways and I think the guy in the tower was bored.

Me: “Fullerton tower, Mooney 78878, holding short runway 24 at Alpha, requesting an eastbound departure.”
Tower: “Mooney 78878, cleared for a right downwind departure, runway 24 cleared for takeoff.”
Me: “Right downwind departure, runway 24 cleared for take off, 878.”
Tower: “That tail number is a mouthful, have a good night.”
Me: “Yeah, people mix up the 7’s and 8’s. Thanks for your help.”

With that we were taking the runway, then climbing out and turning to the east. The clouds were continuing to get lower but it wasn’t going to be a problem. We only climbed to 2,500′ and made a fairly straight track to the east. The clouds were hanging on the mountains to the south and Chino Hills to the north but the area through Santa Ana Canyon was clear. It was really beautiful flying along with clouds off each wing and the city lights below and in front of us.

I was able to get the plane slowed down before entering the pattern and had my speeds nailed down, at least for this landing, on the base and final legs. After landing we fueled the plane up so it would be ready for our next flight and put her away in the hangar.

It was a great night of flying. I was able to check three more local airports off the list of places I want to land at. Also having the separate legs where I could get configured for the different phases of flight was very helpful. It seems I am finally getting a feel for how to slow the plane down, how long it takes to slow it down, and how to hit my speeds in the pattern which has been one of my biggest concerns since I started flying it.

I’m down to just another 1.9 hours with my CFI before I get to go venture out on my own. If the weather will cooperate we are going to knock that out with some more night flying on Friday.

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