Monday, December 22, 2008

Night moves

Top: A runway schematic of KDEN. Above: A picture that doesn't really have to do with my post, other than to show the majestic Rockies in a view that can only be captured while flying over them, one I was lucky to see many times. This particular photo was taken while I was a pax, and my friend Tim was executing the published missed approach off 29R at Jeffco, the runway seen above.

Contrary to media reports, the first crash in Denver International Airport's 13-year history did not occur when Continental Airlines flight 1404 veered off a runway Friday night and cut a half-mile long scar through the snow.

It occurred, according to my logbook, on Feb. 5, 2002.

The date was about a year after I earned my private pilot's license, and probably also about a year after I had last flown at night. There are few things better than a night flight, so missing the dark skies, I set off with my instructor, Hazen, to enjoy the scenery and regain my night proficiency.

I also really wanted to practice night landings. They're tricky.

At night, your visual perceptions get twisted in a fun-house mirror. When you're on a long approach, you often get the sensation that you're too high even though you're not, so you need to be careful about descending too low when there's really no need.

When you're closer, it's often much harder to utilize depth perception when you're trying to figure out how high above the runway you are upon descent and landing, and particularly when you should begin the landing flare.

Night landings are a skill that needs to be honed and maintained. I'm pretty good at it now, but certainly was green on this particular night.

According to the FAA, night flight can be logged only between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight, so we had to wait a while before departing.

(If you're interested in carrying passengers at night, the agency's definition sort of changes to 'night begins one hour after sunset,' and there's a difference between that and civil twilight, but I digress).

Hazen and I waited until it had been dark outside for a while, and we taxied to the run-up area, set up our VORs and departed Jeffco on runway 29R, climbing out toward Boulder's Flatirons.

There probably aren't many of the hundreds of flights I've logged that I remember clearly, but this one was one of the few. As soon as we took off, it became apparent that it was one of those rare times in Colorado where the weather was absolutely perfect for flying.

Typically, you either get super-clear conditions that are accompanied by turbulence and wind. Or you get a smooth ride, but lower visibilities. Part of the reason for that is simply the stability of the weather systems; part of it unique to Colorado is the way the winds gust out of the Front Range and onto the Eastern Plains. It's almost always a trade-off between those two scenarios.

February 5, 2002 was a rare exception.

As soon as our wheels left the ground, I could feel the silky smooth conditions. Just like a glassy lake, there wasn't a ripple in the air. It's an eerie feeling to feel that still while flying; that's one of the reasons I remember this night so vividly.

And the visibility was unbelievable. When we banked off our westerly heading and turned south toward The Springs, only a few hundred feet off the ground, we could already see the city lights twinkling some 60 nautical miles away. Above us, thousands of stars huddled in the sky.

I tuned in the Black Forest VOR, and we proceeded on our way. We weren't even past the outskirts of Denver's southern suburbs when the alternating green-and-white flashes of the beacon at Colorado Springs were visible. Springs approach control took us somewhere over Monument and brought us in on a long straight-in approach the rest of the way.

I dropped 10 degrees of flaps on final. An American MD-80 waited behind the hold line. And I absolutely greased the first landing. I mean, it was perfect. I was right on the center line, brought the wheels down gently, held the nose off for a while, and basked in some lavish praise.

Flaps retracted. Throttle to full. Airspeed alive. Gauges in the green. We completed the touch-and-go, and jumped back into the air.

KCOS tower turned us west toward Cheyenne Mountain, home of NORAD, and kept us in the pattern for a few more touch-and-goes. None of the landings that followed were as perfect as the first. On one, I started descending too early, then had to counter with more power.

But we completed them just fine. They were sloppy from a technical perspective, but nothing that an unknowing passenger would notice. Just missing some style. We thanked KCOS tower for their help and they handed us back to approach for the trip home.

And that's when the trip got interesting.

About halfway home, Hazen piped up.

Hazen was a through-and-through country boy who primarily worked on his family's farm near the Nebraska border and once suspiciously asked my why I wanted to move to Boulder "with all them pot-smoking hippies." He was hilarious.

"Hell, you want to try something fun?"

"Sure," I said.

He contacted Denver approach when we were down by Centennial. "Approach, N5163H is a Cessna 172, wondering if you're not too busy tonight, if we could do a touch-and-go at Denver."

Legend had it that Denver International Airport would let us smaller guys in for a touch-and-go at night if they weren't busy. While we waited for a reply, Hazen told me the chances of such a request being granted were rare, and that he'd only had it work once before.

"Cessna Five One Six Three Hotel, turn right heading 040, maintain eight thousand, five hundred," approach control replied.

Then we heard the magic words.

"You are cleared into the Class Bravo airspace."

Class B airspace is the airspace that surrounds the nation's busiest airports. It sits above those landing strips like an upside-down wedding cake, with layers that grow longer in diameter the higher up you go. In order to enter the Class B, among other requirements, you specifically need to hear those words above. They said them, which meant our request was granted.

Denver Approach took us far to the right of the city, out near Strasburg, then sent us north, almost to Greeley, giving us heading and altitude changes along the way. They might as well have vectored us to Kansas and back.

But after what seemed like forever, they finally turned us south and told us to expect runway 17R. It was a pretty cool moment. It's not every day a yokel private pilot gets to land at a Class B airport. Certainly a moment worth remembering.

As we puttered in at about 90 knots, control cleared a United 757 to land on 16R, which is the same runway the Continental jet used the other day, except in the opposite direction.

We were about one mile from touchdown, and we could see the 757 at our 4-o'clock position, paralleling our path into Denver International. Again, it's a sight to see when you're in a little four-seater and United is dropping off the group from Bora Bora a few hundred feet to your right.

The 757 gracefully touched down on 16R, and then it was my turn.

I dropped 20 degrees of flaps in two stages, slowed to 65 knots and followed the VASI along the glide path perfectly -- red over white and you're all right, the old adage goes. I had my speed and altitude nailed perfect, a stable approach and no wind.

I couldn't ask for a better set-up.

Naturally, I butchered the landing.

Like I described above, I misjudged the distance between the plane and ground. I thought I was high. In reality, I was only a few feet off the ground. Simple stuff. The result was a no-flare landing in which I pretty much just drove the Cessna straight into the ground. A controlled crash, if you will.

The result was, well ... you know how you feel after attempting a belly-flop into the pool and you smack the water and it stings? That's how this felt.

We crunched flat, and bounced back into the air. I reached for the throttle to add a little power back in, hoping to smooth things out, but it was too late. We plopped back to earth again. Then lurched with a sideload.

Shaken out of my complacency, I brought the plane back under control and brought it back to the center line before continuing with the rest of the touch-and-go procedure. There was nothing but silence in the plane.

Finally, Hazen said in his perfect country accent, "You know why they don't let private pilots in their 172s in here?"

There was a long pause. I didn't answer him.

"Well hell, they're afraid a jackass like you is going to crash, and leave the whole place shut down for the big boys!"

He howled with laughter. And then I did too.

We made the short hop back to Jeffco. I aced the landing there, and we went out for a beer afterward.

A good lesson learned, and a good story to tell.



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