The Night 'Baby

Posted Fall, 1996

It's been a heck of a Fly Baby week. Had my first stab at flour bombing last Sunday, and just made my first night flight tonight.

I've always wanted to fly an open-cockpit plane at night. That was one of the things that attracted me to N45848...full electrical system, including lights and strobe.

Two things it doesn't have: Landing lights and instrument lights.

I eventually let myself get convinced I really didn't *need* a landing light. But there was no way in heck I was going to fly at night without being able to read my airspeed indicator, at least.

I'd been lurking on the "cockpit lighting" thread, measuring opinions and getting ideas. I'd pretty much decided on building an LED-based cockpit light. The 'Baby's cockpit is pretty narrow, so I'd decided to mount it either on the narrow shelf right below the panel (where the landing-wire turnbuckle runs) or at the very top of the windshield (battery powered).

I'd gotten to really like the windshield idea...mostly because I was planning to build a rear-view mirror (a la Spitfire) into the assembly. Gotta keep those RV-4s off my tail, y'know.

Last monday was one of the local EAA meetings. I brought the subject of cockpit lighting during the technical portion of the meeting. "Use LEDs!" someone yelled, and I just rolled my eyes. We talked about various mounting schemes, and I kept reiterating that I wanted a system that was both simple and reliable. I hate stringing wires through the cockpit, but the cells in any battery-operated system are likely to die out between uses so that it isn't available when I really needed it.

Then one member made all those years of EAA dues worthwhile.

"What about know, those tubular chemical lights?"

My jaw dropped. No wires, multiyear storage capability, and cheap. "But I'd prefer red," I half-heartedly objected.

"That's OK," he responded. "You can get get 'em in red."

Ulp. I went to work the next day, and dropped by a friend's desk. He's a fellow member of another chapter, and I told him about the lightstick idea. "I can probably rig up a holder with a sliding gate to adjust the brightness," I told him.

His cubicle-mate chimed in. "No need. In the Reserve, we've got little lightstick-holders that include a rotating shutter. We clip 'em to our flight suits." He dug out a catalog. 12-hour red lightsticks for a buck each. The holders were a mere $3.

So yesterday I called and ordered a half-dozen lightsticks and two holders.

I really didn't want to wait the week it'll take to get the goodies in. I had a bug up my tail, I wanted to try it out *now*. The weather's been gorgeous...and in a Seattle fall, you MUST take advantage of it. It's likely to be over by the weekend, with clear days not to return for months.

A warm, sunny, calm day today. About mid-afternoon, I decided to go flying after work. I went home, read the paper, and checked the sunset time: 6:58. I decided to get to the airport about 6:15, take off about 6:30, and land ten minutes or so after sunset.

But on the drive to the airport...the radio announcer mentioned the weather would be perfect for watching this evening's Lunar eclipse.

The lunar eclipse. We won't have another until the next century. And just yesterday, I'd ordered the vinyl "nose art" for naming the Fly Baby. I'm naming it after the highest sail in a square-rigged ship; a sail so named because it was so far off the deck it seems it can touch the heavens: "Moonraker".

The last lunar eclipse. Moonraker. God help me, I knew I had to do it. I *had* to make the Baby's first night flight under the ruddy light of the eclipse.

No red lightsticks? I'll make do with a green one. Cars have green panel lighting. No holders? Heck, I just installed a parts cabinet in my locker at the airport, and I've got a bunch of tie wraps. I'll use duct tape to block the light from shining directly in my face. I'll take off while it's still light, and land early if it looks like I can't read the gauges.

There was a local department store on the way to the airport, and from my previous shopping, I knew exactly where they stocked the lightsticks. I bought a pack of two and made it to the airport about a half-hour before sunset. Attaching it to the landing-wire turnbuckle was easy, and it placed it just two inches from the airspeed indicator. I slapped a piece of duct tape on it as a shield, leaving plenty free so I could adjust it as necessary in flight.

One thing I *did* remember to do was the "start" the stick before attaching it. It would have been awful embarassing, trying to bend the stick in flight.

I preflighted and mounted up. One thing I was glad of was my new pair of goggles. My old trusty ski-goggles had gotten pretty filmy and scratched. Last month, I visited the local motorcycle shop and bought a nice pair of RAF-style angled-lens goggles that fit comfortably over my glasses.

Engine start, and taxi out. Auburn airport actually lies in a valley, and had been in shadow for about fifteen minutes. I did a run-up, checked the lights, and taxied to the hold line as a Bonanza came in on short final. When he cleared the runway, I checked my watch...7:00 straight up, two minutes after official sunset.

I stayed in the pattern, shooting touch and goes as it grew darker. The eastern sky seemed a bit cloudy. The clouds went so high that it looked like it'd be hours before the moon made its appearance.

Then, over the mountains, I saw a sliver of white. I left the pattern, climbing east. I topped out at almost 3,000 (highest I've had the 'Baby yet, in fact) and started flying a north-south line as the moon rose above the horizon. The sliver of white was just the top; the rest grew more visible as it got darker. The ground seemed to come to life as streetlights and houselights came on. The string of airliners coming past Mount Rainier left a line of pinpricks on the darkening sky. The Olympic mountains, far to the west, seemed ablaze with the departed sun. Puget Sound shone quicksilver, not a line or wave disrupting its mirror-like surface..

I watched the moon (and yes, traffic) for about twenty minutes. Then I made a habitual glance at the panel...and realized the oil pressure and other gauges on the left of the panel were getting dark. Green light suffused the airspeed and the adjacent VSI.

It was not especially well-directed green light. In fact, the gauge faces showed the reflection of the lightstick itself, making the gauge a bit harder to read. As it grew darker, I noticed the lightstick was also being reflected in the inside of the windshield. The plexiglass seemed to have a bright green stripe, 1" wide, running from left to right, about four inches above the disappearing horizon.

I figured I'd better get back to the airport. By now, most of the ground landmarks had disappeared, replaced by light patterns. Where was the airport? I knew where it approximately had to be. Unfortunately, a bright oval of lights made it tough to see the fainter ones. I looked for the runway-end strobe lights intensely. There was one pair...I looked left, then right...and there's the other. THEN I realized that the bright oval of lights was the brand-new horse racing track. Which had been built right next door to the airport...

I entered the pattern with several other aircraft. By now, things were pretty dark, with only a marroon stripe in the western sky. The reflection in the ASI was distracting, but I could still easily read the gauge. The Fly Baby's strobe light was starting to be distracting, as well. Both wings flickered in my vision every time the strobe fired. Even worse, the strobe would sometimes refract at the point where the lenses of my goggles had the bend. It looked just like an aircraft strobe at about ten o'clock high.

As I traveled down the downwind leg, a Centurion called entering downwind. I knew he was far faster, and I figured he'd have trouble picking me out. So I turned base at my usual fairly-close-in position.

A mistake. With the darkness, I was having a lot harder time judging my glide. I needed a longer final to get the sight picture down. In the daylight, I can judge a close-in base well enough. But I just wasn't used to the changes at night, and a close base didn't give me enough time. I turned final and lined up on the runway. Down we came, feeling for the asphalt.


The wheels hit with a violence I hadn't yet experienced with this airplane. The windshield opaqued with gasoline mist...a hard landing will squirt gas out along the wire fuel-gage.

A burst of power and some back pressure got it stabilized. I felt for the runway, and managed to get it rolling on the mains without a major second impact.

I made the second turn-off. Darkness surrounded me. The taxiways were lit, but the dim blue lights were widely spaced. 848's nose-high attitude blocks a lot of forward vision, and only one light at a time (if that) was visible on either side of the nose. I taxied slowly. Should I call it a night, after that landing (2.25 Gs on the meter)? Why should I think I could do a better landing next time? It's *dark* out there, man!

But I knew I had to do it...'cause if I didn't I'd never try it again. Besides, I hadn't yet made a night takeoff. There had still been plenty of light when we'd taken off 45 minutes ago. But I had to prove that I could set it down at night.

Back to the departure end. The runway was wider, which made more lights visible on either side of the nose and made it slightly easier to make sure I was running straight. A cautious lift off, and we were climbing.

Back around. This time, I flew a long downwind, setting up for a 3/4 mile final. I watched the VASI on the way down, keeping airspeed a bit higher than 80.

The runway-end strobes passed under the wings, followed by the dimly-seen numbers. I should be touching No, now! Keep coming back with the stick, reducing the descent rate. A small jerk, and the plane was down and rolling. Not bad.

Third one went about as well. Two out of three...well, that's about what I do in the day, so I called it a night. I taxied carefully back to the hangar and shut it down.

I didn't get out of the cockpit right away. I cut the lightstick free, and held it in various positions, trying to find one that would light up the gauges without reflecting in either the instrument glass or the windshield. I found a good spot, running vertically from a little to the right of the center of the landing-wire turnbuckle. When my holders get in, I'll try build an adaptor.

So that was *my* big excitement tonight. Gorgeous flight...but the landings required the utmost attention. It's the payment for the beauty, I guess. Nice time, I'll just rubberneck a while and just count on making one good landing before putting it to bed.

Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja.

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