LOG ENTRY - 21-FEB-2012                                        Matt Borland
  Flight: 37 - 21-FEB-2012 - 2.8 hr - Cross-country night flight
  Depart: KCOS ~1930 -> Arrive: KCOS ~2218

Last night's flight was pretty amazing...a somewhat dazzling experience with a 
climactic ending.  It was my second night flight, but instead of flying 
patterns around the airport, I flew with my instructor to Lamar, a small town 
about 120 miles southeast of the Springs airport.  

In the morning I had prepared by sleeping in (you are not allowed to have a 
work day longer than 12 hours including your flight) and then sprawling my 
maps, charts, and planning tools across the floor.  This attracted the interest 
of our cockatiels and cats.  I hadn't planned a night cross-country flight 
before, so I didn't really know how to set up my visual waypoints, and my 
instructor said he'd wanted me to 'learn through experience' rather than 
telling me what would work best.  I picked some standard waypoints along a 
straight path between the Springs and Lamar, mostly including lighted towers 
and small towns.  There had just been a new moon, so there wasn't going to be 
any moonlight to help me out.  I charted the distances and would check the 
winds later to estimate the times.

Then in the evening I headed to the hangar and performed all the time and gas 
consumption estimates based on the winds.  This process is a bit of a crap 
shoot because the winds aloft (high in the sky) are only recorded in a few 
places and a few times by weather balloons.  It looked like I'd have a decent 
tailwind on the way out, and thus a headwind on the way back.  The forecast for 
both airports looked pretty calm, but the Springs did have a chance of wind 
shear below 2200 feet, with estimated gusts up to 35 knots.  That wouldn't be 
pretty, but like all forecasts in Colorado, it's best to read them and just 
make sure you have alternate plans.

For my preflight inspection, it was pretty warm and my new red-light headlamp 
proved very useful.  The winds were pretty light and in a few minutes we had 
departed runway 31.  We were soon clear of the airport area headed southeast at 
9500 feet, into a rich darkness.

Within a few minutes it because clear that the waypoints I had picked were not 
very valuable.  Individual towers were pretty indiscernible from each other, 
and I could soon see what my instructor had wanted me to learn by experience: 
that out in Colorado at least, your visual depth is well over 100 miles, so 
instead of looking for waypoints only near your course, you can and should pick 
out cities even if they are distant and mark your waypoint when you are 
perpendicular to them.  Lesson learned...I was unable to use my original 
waypoints, and instead relied on my estimated heading and visual estimation to 
lead me to the airport.

Freed of my waypoint worries, I could take in the wonder of the vista about me. 
Just as in the day, as a pilot you are making visual scans of the the world 
around you, and then back to your various instruments to make sure everything 
is OK.  Below lay an expanse of pale blue lights, each placed at the center of 
large irrigation arms (those big circular fields).  To the right I could see a 
string of towns following the Arkansas river from Pueblo through Lamar...golden 
patches strung together with highway lighting.  At any time, there was some air 
traffic in view; jets high above us, or other small planes slowly dancing about 
the skies.  I scanned constantly and kept track of the movement of all visible 
traffic, like a little radar map in my mind.  Over time you could tell the 
relative direction of the planes just by seeing the change in their location.  
Most of this traffic was well more than twenty miles away, and none of it came 
much closer.  The greatest number of planes I was tracking at one time when 
going east was six.  After a while I spotted a green and white flashing light 
from the approximate direction of Lamar, possibly the airport beacon.  Another 
forty or more miles beyond that lay a large line of red lights, a massive wind 
farm.  This view was not quite as crisp as the night expanses of Blade Runner 
or some other such movie, if only because the curved window reflected and 
distorted some of the light from our strobe and from the white lights on the 
engine instruments.  But it was quite awe-inspiring and incredibly peaceful.

After some triangulating using our navigational instruments, I determined we 
were probably about sixty miles from the airport, and all but verified that the 
beacon we'd seen was in fact Lamar.  I was a little far north of the intended 
course, but that probably had been due to my estimated heading being affected 
by a different wind direction than what was expected.  At this point I could 
use visual references to aim for the airport and account for any wind effects.

As we neared the airport, I could verify its location by remotely turning on 
the lights.  This was cool...what you do is tune into the communication 
frequency for the airport (which is uncontrolled at night), click the mike 
seven times quickly, wait, then click it five times to bring the runway lights 
up to high intensity.  I did this, then watched as the runways slowly became 
illuminated!  They then stay lit for another fifteen minutes.  I descended and 
entered the pattern, calling out our position along the way in case any other 
traffic should be around.  The winds were pretty calm on the ground, as 
reported by the automated weather broadcast from the airport, and although it 
was a little odd landing at a little airport at night (the runway just 60 feet 
wide instead of 150 at the Springs), I did OK and did a few touch-and-goes.  
Partway through the last touch-and-go another plane called into the frequency 
to announce his intention to land, so I cleared out of the airport to the 
north, well out of his way, and began our climb to 10,500 feet.

Upon our climb I turned to the return heading, and could easily see not only 
the glow of Colorado Springs but also the intense lighting at Schriever AFB, 
about 110 miles away.  This was a great visual reference...all I had to do was 
alter my heading to bring my course directly to it.  Upon reaching cruising 
altitude, I leaned the fuel mixture to the engine so that I didn't waste much 
fuel; I'd forgotten to do this on the way out, so I probably burned up more 
fuel than I needed to.

The flight back, my instructor and I mostly conversed about flying.  I noticed 
that I have developed a 'mike laugh' (my term), meaning that if you laugh with 
too much of an exhalation, you'll just flood the intercom with white noise.  
So, not too far off from my usual elevator laugh, I use a somewhat gutteral 
'heh, heh' or short 'ha' as my laugh.  I also talk in a little bit of a 
monotone with a regular syllabic beat, so there aren't too many breaks as the 
voice-activated mike picks up your talk.

As we got nearer to Schriever, I picked out a point to call into Springs 
approach to announce my intention to land.  I got the weather info and it 
sounded a little rough, some gusting and relatively strong winds.  Since the 
same ATC operator was managing both the approach frequency and the tower 
frequency, we could hear her calls to pattern traffic.  Some C-130 pilots were 
training for night-vision landings, meaning that they were using head-mounted 
night vision goggles to land.  The tower advised us that runway 35R was going 
to be unlit due to these practice landings, which was OK because we were told 
to expect a landing on 31.  As we switched over to the tower frequency we could 
hear all the chatter during these practice landings.

We were also advised that the conditions at the airport had worsened.  Just as 
forecast, there was wind shear below 2200 feet and there were reports from 
traffic as well as sensors of numerous microbursts about the airport.  
Microbursts are sudden downdrafts that create strong winds in all directions 
out from where it contacts the ground.  Both the downdrafts as well as the 
resulting gusts are dangerous and unpredictable.  It got pretty turbulent as I 
descended, and after a few reports of 35 knot gains/losses in airspeed, all 
traffic in the pattern slowed to give the bursts time to wear off.  We burnt 
some time by going south and discussed the conditions and risks of landing.  
The winds we'd be landing into were in the high 20 knots, beyond what I should 
be flying into as a student at the club, and with the microburst/wind shear 
about it just wasn't safe for me to perform the landing.  My instructor took 
the controls at the end of our final approach and kept a little fast for a 
no-flaps landing and a little high at first, hedging against the possibility of 
a 35 knot loss in airspeed or a downdraft.  He felt the winds a little bit and 
decided to follow through with the landing.  As we approached within a few 
hundred feet of the threshold, the plane felt a little like a leaf caught 
between two sputtering leaf blowers.  But he held the plane well and once we 
were in ground effect it seemed like we'd make the landing OK, if a bit rough.  
We touched down and yet had to keep managing and fighting the winds...you are 
reminded that you are flying the plane even when on the ground, since you are 
still subject to all kinds of effects from the wind.  My instructor talked with 
the tower a little about the wind conditions to help set expectations for other 
traffic, and soon we were off the runway and headed to the fuel pit.

By the time we got back to the hangar it was about 10:30, and I was obviously a 
little tired but also invigorated from the overall flight, as well as the 
somewhat touchy landing.  I got to the hotel, where they were a little worried 
I hadn't checked in yet, and I couldn't quite sleep, so I watched the end of 
some movie starring Ginnifer Goodwin and Kate Hudson ("Something Borrowed," 
IMDB tells me).  The sort of dull drama seemed the perfect antidote to an 
exciting day and I fell asleep a few moments after the end credits started 

Amazing!  Coming up I have a dual long cross-country flight, a solo long 
cross-country, and practice for my final check rides...the license is within