Flying at night in a small plane at low altitudes is not unlike night scuba dives: floating in three dimensions in a moving and invisible fluid, with no reference. In the air, you can travel hundreds of miles across mountains, oceans, and plains.
When there are clouds below you, cities project an orange splendor through their bellies and their tops glow like jellyfish in the dark oceans. When between cloud layers, we are in a vast room in some extraterrestrial and empty palace hanging in the sky.
Especially in the big plains of Kansas and Nebraska, the sky at the lower altitudes is empty. You are the only human being in the vast atmospheric ocean. With stars above and lights below, there is no discernible horizon; I float in a vast space of nothingness with no reference. Some have crashed their machines out of sheer disorientation during night flight.
I remember flying west, at midnight, nearing Topeka and getting ready to land. There were flaring cumulus all around me and ahead, bursting with flashes of light and providing instant glimpses of the world below. I was flying IFR and the voice of the air controller betrayed some anxiety. It happened in a more poetic and less scripted life, before GPS, before satellite weather and onboard radar, and I was threading my way through the storms in my little Skylane with no autopilot. Sadly, I was too busy to take pictures. These were baby storms and we played together as I zigged and zagged among playful cotton balls down to the Philip Billard Municipal Airport runways. It was raining in the world of land creatures, where I went to sleep with a smile on my face.
Night makes it difficult to see or find emergency landing spots. White and green flashing airport beacons are the lighthouses that point at safe harbors along the way. I see them even from airliners, and every time, I have a sense of relief to have one more potential out. In sparsely populated areas, the absence of a good plan B sharpens perception. I hear engine noises that are not there, but my heightened senses also deliver a richer experience.
Flying at night provides a silly way to meet your maker: forgetting to bring a flashlight. When flashlight-less pilots lose their electrical systems at night, in the clouds, they can’t see their instruments. They are likely to auger in, even though their aircraft is flying just fine. Bring several flashlights; red ones, to keep your retina’s rods at their maximum sensitivity.
Mountains offer fewer options. Even though they are below us, their presence looms, just an engine sputter away from revealing their inconvenient ruggedness. Light twin, non-turbocharged aircraft pilots, who can’t maintain altitude if they lose an engine, continuously plan for a slow descent in the direction of lowering elevations to escape the mountains. They might keep a bearing to the relative openness of Gunnison as they fly over the Gore Range. To the East, the lowest point is Monarch Pass – too high; to the West, it’s still a long mountainous way to Montrose and Grand Junction. When the Moon smiles in the sky, the peaks show their jagged teeth.
I have flown myself across the country at night many times, mostly on my own. Absolute darkness is common west of Denver. I remember taking off from Eagle on a moonless night and having to depend entirely on my instruments to know what was going on – there was nothing but a uniform darkness ahead and around me. Exuberant crowns of lights cover the coasts – Los Angeles, Houston, the Eastern Seaboard; and large cities like Chicago. Houston’s refineries sparkle like millions of diamonds on the most exalted crown. These are experiences I crave and relive with a grin on my face. I hope to fly across the night again soon.