Written by Mike Strasser about his early career in flying many moons ago:
When I was a young lad and still working on building hours for my first Part 135 job, I frequently rented one of the little Cessna 152’s the company had and took it out on night flights after work. The air was smooth, and I had to build cross country flight time as well as night flight time. It didn’t matter if those hours were in a helicopter or an airplane so I went the cheaper route since I still had no money. I worked out a deal so I could get the flight hours as cheap as possible utilizing my status as an employee and arguing that I would be working as a charter pilot for the company one day.
That night I had planned to fly to Santa Barbara for a touch-and-go and call it a night. I had worked all day but wanted to build hours as fast as I could to make it a step closer to the ultimate goal of getting paid to fly helicopters.
“Cessna XXX is taking the active 26, right turn out” would be the last thing I was transmitting that night. The take off was smooth and I was looking forward to a peaceful flight along the coast and the great of experience of landing at the Santa Barbara airport at night when it was all lit up with all the colorful runway and taxiway lights.
I was passing Oxnard when I reached down to turn off my landing light. The plane had a landing light and a tax light and when I reached down I turned on the taxi light instead of turning off the landing light. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal because the plane is designed to run both lights at the same time and I would just go “Oh, wait! That’s the wrong switch!” and fix it. But not this time.
Something overloaded or shorted out, I am not sure, but when I turned on the taxi light everything went dark. I didn’t just pop a circuit breaker or lost one system, I lost everything that had to do with electricity.
“Self” I thought to myself, “it’s time to go back to Camarillo and land.” No big deal, right?! It is required for a pilot to have a flashlight when he or she goes on a night flight. It always made sense to bring one but suddenly it did even more so. I turned on my little flashlight shined it on my instruments which also went dark and sat on it to keep it in place. I was surprisingly calm as turned back towards the airport. The engine was still running and all the controls were still responding since the little Cessna does not have a “fly-by-wire” system installed. Thank god for the good old control cables, bellcranks and push-pull rods!
The Camarillo airport is not staffed at night and pilots use a “common traffic frequency” to announce their position when they come in for landing. As long as everybody is talking and stating their intentions, it’s a pretty safe deal since there are not that many planes in the sky during night anyways. Another pretty neat system a lot of airports have is that the pilot can turn on the runway lights from the air by clicking his transmit-button 7 times in a row. This saves the airport money as the lights turn off again after 5 minutes or so until the next plane comes in and the pilot clicks the lights.
As I got closer it started dawning on me that I would neither be able to hear the other airplanes in the sky nor be able to turn the lights on since my radio wasn’t working. No juice, no radios, which also means no “clicking”.
“Well, maybe the lights are still on” I thought but it soon became apparent that they weren’t. “Ok, I know where the airport is. Why don’t I just do a low pass and see if I can see anything” I started curving in for a low pass and instinctively reached for the landing light switch which of course did nothing anymore. I was kind of laughing at myself for even trying this maneuver and thinking I had landing lights since nothing else was working on the airplane. It was pitch black dark out there and I could not make out the runway. All I saw was a big black hole. The moon wasn’t out and I never even saw the runway marking shimmer white in the moonlight. I departed the airport again since I didn’t want to be in the way in case another airplane was coming in. Obviously there were no other planes around or somebody would have tried to turn the lights on at the airport but I was worried of airplane just passing by since they wouldn't be able to see me. I was pretty sure I had no outside lights either. I was a ghost plane.
My heart rate was now going up a little since my first two plans didn’t work out as I had planned. What can I try next? I am out here in the dark of the night without having a way of telling anybody. In flight school we learned all those great procedures on what to do when your radio goes out. You can communicate with the tower with light signals which is pretty neat. Or when you landing light breaks, or when your alternator goes out, and so on. But nobody ever mentioned what to do with a complete back-out at night and the tower people are off.
I looked at my fuel gage and stuck the flashlight into my mouth to do few calculations. I didn't really want to fly all the way to Santa Barbara but over there I had a higher chance of any runway lights being on than where I currently was. My gauge was showing that I had enough fuel to stay in the air for another two hours. But what was the fuel gauge really indicating? After all I probably had no power going to it either. But I knew when I took off and what I had on board then so I decided to “hang out” close to the Camarillo airport for a while to see if somebody else was coming in to land and turn the lights on for me. Of course nobody came for a whole half hour. I figured if nobody would show up in the next couple of minutes I would need to fly to Santa Barbara and I wanted to leave myself enough fuel in case I ran into a problem over there.
I was coming up to a point of no return where I had to go to SBA and once I made the decision to go, there would not be enough fuel left to go anywhere else when I get there. This did make me a little nervous all of a sudden and I felt very alone up there in the dark.
I was about to turn and head to SBA when I spotted a plane on the horizon. “This HAS to work” I told myself and made the decision to hang out a few more minutes. And to my relief the airplane was headed right for Camarillo. Now it was on! I had to get myself right behind that plane because I did not want those lights to turn off on me again, especially not when I was on short final. The lights came on and the plane lined up for the runway. I was hauling ass, giving my little Cessna everything she’s got to get right behind the other airplane. When I was circling and waiting I picked a spot not too close to the airport and outside the traffic pattern to avoid running into other airplanes and where I knew nobody would come passing through. It was right over the city. Since my plane was all darkened out nobody could call in my N-number anyways, right?! It was a good plan in my mind but I was beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t have just picked something closer. The other plane was faster than me but I made it right on it’s tail by cutting my downwind and base leg short and I touched down only seconds right behind them. Safe at last!
I even taxied right behind the plane and it turned out it was a plane from the same flight school and I knew the pilots. They shut down their engines at the tie down area and saw me for the first time parking right next to them. “Where in the hell did you come from?” Greg asked me as we climbed out of our airplanes. They had no idea I was right on their tail the whole time.
I told him the story and he pointed out that I seemed more pissed off about my night cross country not going as planned than freaked out about what just happened. It was interesting because it never hit me how bad this could have turned out if I panicked or nobody came in for a landing until after I was safely on the ground. I parked the airplane and walked away getting a good night sleep even. It didn’t really affect me until the next day when I told the story and everybody responded with an “Oh my god! What did you end up doing? Are you ok?”
Maybe it was a little dicey after all but it worked out ok for me. Another lesson learned I guess. I was just glad I kept my cool the whole time without even thinking about it.
Co-Creator of Chicken Wings Comics