“You want to fly at night? Well, you just go over to Tampa International or somewhere else to fly at night. I don’t let my airplanes fly at night.” Charlie looks at me like I have lost my mind. “But here’s something I am going to tell you. That engine quits at night and you’re gonna be wishing you had a parachute.”
I can understand what he means, about the parachute. It would be nice to have if the engine failed at night. I remember reading about Lindbergh’s account of running out of gas one night while flying the mail. He had a parachute and he used it. He jumped out of his plane and as he drifted down, the plane kept circling around threatening to hit him in the descent. It is a great story he tells in his book, The Spirit of St. Louis.
While his account was harrowing, Lindbergh also wrote well of flying at night. He was a descriptive writer and after reading about his night flights, a pilot who had not flown at night would be primed to explore. Which is what I want to do. I want to experience everything I can in aviation, including flying in the dark.
Charlie placated me for a while with his comment about wanting a parachute if the engine failed. It made sense; if you were flying around in the dark and the engine quit, it might be hard picking a good place to land. For the longest time, I thought about that scenario. Just what would you do in case the engine quite in the dark?
Later in my career, I would fly at night. It started a lot like Lindbergh’s job of flying the night mail, only I was flying checks for the Federal Reserve as a contract pilot. After that, I flew in the Navy and of course, those guys fly regardless of the time of day.
Flying at night is serious business and if you are not instrument rated or equipped, I would think twice about it. Many of my professional pilot friends will not consider flying single-engine at night for the same reasons Charlie gave me over 35 years ago.
One day, I was heading home from a fly-in and my friend, Jim, watched me prepare for the flight. He knew where I was going and how long it would take to get there. He also knew what time I was departing and that I would spend the last hour flying in the dark.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Getting ready to head out.”
“You know, it is going to be dark in less than an hour. And you’re not going to be home before sunset.”
“I know,” I conceded.
“You know Bernoullis don’t work in the dark, don’t you? You’re liable to fall right out of the sky.” Jim wanted want me to stick around and share stories and drinks around the campfire with the other pilots, but I had to work in the morning. So I took off.
And it was a beautiful flight home, as in the case of most night flights flown on nights of clear weather. The moon was out and the stars helped show me the way home. The Continental C-145 up underneath the cowling steadily droned on, not missing a beat. But in the back of my mind, across all the years, distance flown, and flight time, I could still hear the old man’s admonition.
“If that engine quits, you’re gonna wish you had a parachute.”
© 2010 J. Clark