I’m currently recovering from some minor surgery, and out of the cockpit for a few months. During this time, I’m digging up some memorable flying experiences from the past. Don’t worry… multiple paragraphs contemplating the ocean from 40,000 feet will be back soon!
The last splashes of red and orange have faded from the horizon, as we run westward from the night at 32,000 feet. The sky has slowly desaturated over the past 20 minutes—from what had been the bright blue above the post-sunset light show, now has completed its steady fade towards black. Below us now, patches of light stretch out into the distance, each one connected by an arterial network of roads that weaves its way through the invisible Pennsylvania hills. Fifty miles ahead of us, emerging from the distant fuzz where dark sky meets darker earth, and cutting across the random pattern of lights, the Ohio River serpentines its way southward, its banks lined with the harsh orange lights of coal plants, factories, and other signs of industry.
Closer in, just off the nose, the beacon at Pittsburg’s airport flashes its reassuring white and green pattern. Flying into the ‘Burg used to be an almost daily occurrence on most of our trips, but the airline has reduced its flights to this city, as cost cuts and restructuring have adjusted the route map. As I watch the runway lights emerge from the black empty spaces, I try to remember the last time I landed here, and can’t. My eyes drift closer in to where the dim beacon at Alleghany County pulses in the darkness. I lean forward in my seat, look downward at it, and then remember a cold February night six years ago…
The Cessna’s controls feel shrouded and indistinct in my gloved hands. Despite the temperature mixing lever being pushed full open, the fresh and warmed nighttime air, pulled into the cabin from around the engine, isn’t keeping up against the cold as we push northward. I still have my heavy coat on and a hat is jammed underneath the headset I am wearing. Taking one gloved hand off the yoke, I clumsily shine a flashlight at the thermometer that is mounted at the top center of the windshield and see the white needle is well below zero.
Fifteen minutes ago, as we rolled down the cracked concrete at Fairmont—the dim white runway edge lights sliding by like buoys in the ocean, and the plane rattling and creaking under full engine power—the temperature was only a slightly warmer 15 degrees. Climbing through 1000 feet, my instructor, in the right seat, bundled up in a coat that smelled faintly of the horses he keeps at his farm, pointed out his window at Interstate 79, a curvy black wire in the darkness, with pools of red and white light—car headlights—traveling along its length. I acknowledged his silent directions, my verbal reply getting lost in the voice activation delay of the interphone, and turned to follow the road.
Now level at 5500 feet and the rush of takeoff slowly fading behind our tail, I take a few seconds to widen my focus and look around. The highway ahead of us twists and turns around the rolling and all but invisible West Virginia hills. As the engine drones onward and the propeller bites into the cold air, I visualize the view from the road below as it winds its way ever northward. I drive this section of pavement—between my house and the airport—several times a week, and know that at our current altitude we are clear of the terrain that surrounds the highway, but in the darkness where the sandstone and shale ridges lurk below, I’m suddenly less than confident in that knowledge. Angry red lights blink at the top of several of the hills, where radio and cell phone towers poke skyward. The way ahead appears clear though, and putting my trust in my eyes—and the chart clipped to my kneeboard—we continue across the cold night sky.
Twenty minutes later, with the lights of urban sprawl now materializing in the distance, my instructor tunes the radio to Pittsburg Approach to request clearance into the airspace. The earpieces on my headset, silent since we departed Fairmont beyond a few measured, quiet suggestions from my instructor, now sputter to life with a near constant stream of instructions from the controller who is managing the late evening arrivals into USAir’s fortress hub. This is my first experience flying in busy airspace, and I struggle to filter out the rapid fire clearances and readbacks between the ground and the sky.
There is a brief moment of quiet and my instructor, working the radio, as I’ve never experienced a frequency this busy before, calmly breaks in, asking for clearance to Alleghany County Airport. We are south and below most of the arrivals stream and are given a vector directly to the airport and told to contact the tower when we get closer. The view out the front windshield is a confusing swirl of city lights and darkened patches, which from driving through this area, I know to be hills. My instructor tells me to just focus on flying the plane and he’ll direct me to the airport. I nod in the darkness and bank the plane in the general direction he points to, still half listening to the constant babble of the radio, while out of the corner of my eye, high overhead, I watch a pair of nav lights and a red beacon glide westward through the darkened sky.