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Thoughts from the Western Slope

Sliding Through the Night Sky
By Bill Marvel
Posted: 2020-02-11T23:13:00Z

Out here in Grand Junction I have a usual route for taking people on sightseeing flights when the weather is good and the air smooth.  It heads southeast down the Uncompahgre plateau, overhead Telluride, a circle around infamous Black Bear Pass, over the Jeep trail high point at Imogene Pass, adjacent to Ouray, across Montrose and the Black Canyon, atop the Grand Mesa and then a descent back to home base at GJT. The trip is very scenic, covers a lot of different terrain and is especially enjoyable for people who don’t fly in light airplanes a great deal.  That includes an airline pilot friend here on a layover who I flew on that route a few weeks ago.  He was amazed he’d forgotten how much beautiful terrain he misses from high altitude.    

Lately, however, I’ve taken a couple of local pilot friends up at night.  In part because there is little ground lighting in this area except for a couple of towns, many out here have not flown at night for years.  Disorientation is a concern since some headings just lead to blackness in front of the airplane until distant lights become visible.  So this is an unusual flight for them as it can be a bit spooky.  At night, I don’t fly over that same Telluride route but stay in the Grand Valley, which encompasses Grand Junction, Delta, Paonia and Montrose, all here in Colorado.  It also goes well westward into Utah but there is not much to see at night out there.  On these trips we go to different airports, land with and without landing lights, do some go arounds and an instrument approach or two.  I stay night current and they get to do something they haven’t done in awhile.      

Night flight focuses more of a pilot's attention on the panel than
does its daylight brethren since visual clues are diminished.  Plus,
illuminated instrument panels, whether of the newer EFIS design
or the older six pack, are just plain attractive to look at! 

Needless to say, most flying occurs in daylight.  After all, that’s when we’re up and around doing things, including flying airplanes.  We generally sleep at night.  Sure, some freight haulers and long-distance airline types, as well as military pilots, get a lot of sun-below-the-horizon flying time but not most of us.  When you couple that norm with the fact a lot of folks just don’t feel safe being in the air at night, particularly in the remote west with little ground lighting and especially in a single engine airplane, you frequently have all the airspace and all the airports to yourself.  In my case, that includes the nearby airports at Grand Junction, Delta, Montrose and Paonia.  And yet all of these airports have long, paved, lighted runways.   Some have sequenced flashing lights, approach lights, runway end identification lights and three have multiple instrument approaches, including ILS and LPV.  Only Grand Junction has a control tower and it closes at 10 PM.   So except for the occasional night airline operation at Montrose or Grand Junction, none of these airports has any traffic after sundown!


Turning final to Montrose runway 35 in the center of the picture.  Runway 13/31 is visible on the left.  With no air traffic, we were able to take off and land in both directions on each runway multiple times.  And as seen in the photo of Grand Junction below, once you leave the immediate vicinity of the airport here in Montrose, it gets very dark, very fast.

In my view, there are several pluses for night flight, whether for fun and sightseeing, currency, instrument approach practice or basic flight instruction.  While I am not a CFI, I’m surprised more training flights do not take place in the night air.  It is frequently calm and smooth with good visibility.  Daytime heating and related thermal bumps are gone.  Conflicting aircraft, if any, are easily seen due to nav lights, strobes and frequently these days, pulsed landing lights.  With glass cockpits now common, sunlight glare on displays is not a problem.  Want to fly an unusually low or high traffic pattern?  Practice a dead stick from 3000 feet over the runway?  Take off, do a 180 and land back on the opposite runway?  No one is there to complain or get in the way. And for instrument approaches, the instructor can pay a lot more attention to the student and less to the outside world since there isn’t much traffic out there and anything that is can be easily seen from far away.  The instructor can play ATC with things like multiple vectors, unplanned holds, changes of destination airport, unusual attitude training etc., much more easily when no one else is out there to conflict with you.

Yes, I know many members live in or near Denver and Colorado Springs and busy airports there have a good deal of traffic, both day and night. But it doesn’t take long to fly to an outlying airport that has little to no air traffic and no control tower.  And with just about every airport having at least one RNAV approach nowadays, there should be several fields to choose from.


Grand Junction is the largest city in western Colorado.
But at night, seen here on our return from Montrose,
it is obvious how small it is as well as how black the surrounding terrain.

Night flying is a great way to improve your skills, add a new dimension to your aviation pursuits, enjoy the views from aloft from a different perspective and reduce the risks of a mid-air collision.  Plus, it’s a lot of fun!  And be honest now, have you ever practiced night landings without a landing light?  I make some of my best landings in that situation but I don’t know why.  How about you?


Of course, there’s the ever present, “but what if the engine quits?” concern.  Well, what if you’re in a car wreck on the way to the airport or what if your heart stops beating?  Yes, these things do happen but have to be put in perspective in terms of their likelihood of occurrence.  That’s for the next issue.  But here’s a hint – the odds of an engine failure are far greater in your imagination than they are under the cowling and you have significant control over both…




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