December 21, 2007

Silent Night

There's something a little creepy about the silence tonight — it's a clear, still, cool Friday evening, perfect VFR flying weather, but … well, where is everyone? Even my passenger, Artist 1, notices it. We're the only active GA traffic at 7pm on a Friday evening at Oakland (KOAK), and we clearly wake up the poor tower controller at Napa (KAPC) when we call her over San Pablo Bay to tell her we're inbound for landing twenty minutes later (it's so clear I can easily see Napa's runway 18R from over Berkeley). What's up with everyone? It's Friday evening just before Christmas — this should be prime flying time, one way or another.

Oh well. I don't know what's going on, but for Artist 1 and me, it's all a pleasant surprise, a beautiful night VFR Bay Tour with a landing at Napa, and Artist 1 gets to fly again before going south to the OC with Artist 2 to visit the rels (what fun). It's so quiet (and the air so still) that when Napa tower asks me where we're parking after landing on runway 6, and I reply that I'd like to taxi back and do a downwind departure back to Oakland, she tells me that, well, I can have any runway I like (except 18L which isn't lighted) and any departure I want; my choice. I elect to keep pottering slowly down runway 6 in the dark and do a 180 at the end, with the straight out on 24 back towards the Bay. Which is exactly what we do (waking up the controller again after the 180 for the takeoff clearance). The entire time from first call to Oakland ground to some time after contacting NorCal Approach on the way back into Oakland some forty minutes later there's not another GA soul around (or at least on-air). I start to wonder about the likelihood of some sort of GA-specific neutron bomb or something.

And then things perk up, at least a little: just as we're over the shoreline heading for the Temple at 2,500', NorCal says she'll have to vector us and climb us a while for a mercy flight incoming from the east. Sounds good to me, and soon we're way up in the Class B on vectors while somewhere in front of us a helicopter heads low and fast towards Oakland Children's Hospital (I always get a terrible feeling of foreboding or sadness when I hear or see a medical helicopter heading in a hurry towards Children's Hospital). From the on-air calls, the pilot sounds unfamiliar with the landing spot; I've seen the landing pad many times from the ground, but I can imagine it's pretty difficult to spot from the air, surrounded by typical built-up urban density and confusing lights. We finally see the helicopter itself, crossing in front of and below us, and call traffic. NorCal sounds relieved, tells us to keep visual separation, to head for Oakland, own nav, and switch to tower. This leaves us crossing the Temple at 4,000', which locals will recognise as presenting an interesting altitude, airspeed, and energy management problem, but hell, it's a clear night, and once again we seem to be the only light GA traffic on (or above) Earth. I briefly wonder what'll happen if I request the Oakland trifecta (27L, 27R, and 33, all in one fun series of sidesteps and a single extended clearance) but think the better of it with a passenger. And that's about the extent of the excitement this evening, I'm afraid. Not much to write home about, but it's a very pleasant and relaxing flight overall: night VFR over the Bay and / or the City has to be one of my most enjoyable short just-do-it flights.

Back on the ramp in front of Kaiser, right where the old 737 was parked last time, and right next to the (now-working) fuel pumps, there's another 737, this one (I think) a New Zealand registered but otherwise anonymous new-gen plane that had been taxiing in from runway 29 when we departed. It looks like it's being prepped for departure as we park at the pumps — its APU is running, and there are two pilots (or pilot-like entities :-)) in the cockpit — so I don't wander over and take photos (and it'd be just like my luck to discover it belonged to the NZ equivalent of the CIA or something). A nice-looking plane; Artist 1 says it's probably one of Google's slumming it at Oakland, and they just haven't had time to change the registration. This seems as good an explanation as any; or maybe there just isn't enough room over the Bay at Moffett for all Google's owners' aircraft anymore.


Anonymous said...

How "safe" is night VFR? I ask as a non-pilot, but someone who has taken a few flight lessons and is thinking about going for my license someday. I hear about how safety in flying is relative: it's all about risk management and how many risks you want to accept. What's your take on night VFR?

Hamish said...

I think night VFR is definitely less safe than day VFR in almost every way, but the risks are manageable enough to make it worthwhile, at least for me. I have an instrument rating, which makes things like possible disorientation a little less likely, and might help me get home safely if I accidentally get into clouds (both things are typically easier at night). The biggie for me, though, is the inability to select any sort of emergency landing spot at night.

Having said all that, I suspect that if, like me, you mostly do night VFR flights over familiar terrain and locations (with enough ground lighting to give you a good horizon and feel for where you are), and you're watching the weather like a hawk, the risk isn't much worse than during the day. After all, if the engine fails when you're over (say) Berkeley, probably the only realistically-safe place to land is going to be in the Bay anyway, and landing there's as hard in the day as at night, more-or-less...

So yes, if you're good at identifying and managing those risks, it's possible to get them down to an acceptable level. But I personally wouldn't do long night VFR cross-countries over unfamiliar terrain without considerable planning and / or treating it as really an IFR flight done without a filed IFR flight plan.

Anonymous said...

Similarily, what about accepting the risks of a clearance over water? How safe is that in single-pilot light planes? What if it's IFR? How common is an over-water clearance?

Hamish said...

Yes, extended flight over water in a light single is inherently less safe than over land, but again, it's a somewhat manageable risk. The ILS into Monterey is where this most crosses my mind, as you're often vectored quite a lot further out over the Pacific than you could possibly glide back to land, and I typically seem to do that approach in IMC. Similarly, one of the standard IFR departure clearances from Arcata has you fly way out over the cold and rough Pacific (I've done it).

In both cases, I accept the risk because a) you're in radar contact and working with ATC fairly closely; and b) there's a Coast Guard station nearby in both cases. OK, that last bit sounds glib, but in neither case are you so far out of the way that you couldn't be rescued fairly quickly, and since you're IFR, it's likely that someone knows there's a problem almost as soon as it happens. It'd be different if I were being vectored dozens of miles out to sea out of radar range; that's yet to happen for me, so far at least.

But again, there's no denying it's not as safe as VFR over land, or driving, for that matter. It's one of the risks I take, I guess.