Gremlins of Night Flight

Gremlins of Night Flight

Gremlins of Night Flight

Night flight has a tendency to bring out all the gremlins that most pilots are certain live in the wiring and other mysteriously-inaccessible spaces of their aircraft. In addition, the gremlins themselves, quite strangely, seem to become more active when the pilots are rushed. And, on this night, we were really in a hurry.

It is 9:12 PM and we are over Annette Island (ANN) in Southeast Alaska, descending out of FL200. The night is moonless and as black as the inside of a bag of charcoal. Out the Lear’s curved windshield, snow is blowing horizontally at 300 knots into the recognition lights, looking like long streamers of white ribbon that materialize out of nowhere and end at the wing tip. With the headset off my left ear, I am explaining to the passenger sitting behind that we have the little jet going as fast as it can but still may not get there in time. The gremlins must be listening, because all of a sudden the over-speed warning horn goes off in its loud and alarming fashion, startling the passenger.

JC and I are on the first of a two-leg night flight from Bellingham (KBLI), Washington to Juneau, Alaska (PAJN). In spite of our being ready to depart much earlier, one of our passengers showed up an hour late. As a result, although we both know better, RC and I are just plain hurrying the airplane. Ketchikan (PAKT), our first stop, is located on an island across the Tongas Narrows from the town, with no services available on the airport side other than the airline terminal and FBO. The last ferry from the airport to town leaves at 9:30 PM. If our passengers miss it, they will be sleeping on the FBO floor until the ferry starts running again in the morning.

The gremlins were not yet awake when we took off on BLI’s runway 16, turned right, and shortly thereafter were cleared direct to ANN at FL380. Reaching altitude, we peacefully cruise along at maximum-continuous power with ISA +10, doing mach .77 on top of a cloud layer, with a bright blue haze on the horizon from the continuously-setting sun. The Universal FMS shows that if we make a straight-in to runway 29, we will be on the ground by 9:15. But, by now, the gremlins of night flight are becoming alert, and it is not to be.

First, the weather at PAKT, which had been 3,500 broken and 10 miles, with calm winds, drops to 1,500 broken and 6 miles, with light rain and winds from the east. This means our hoped-for quick VFR arrival from directly over ANN will instead be the ILS to runway 11. At 250 knots, we rush from ANN over to COGOX (the ILS 11 IAF), turn left to the outbound heading of 295, fly straight for 30 seconds, then, with the FMS driving the autopilot, watch as the system starts the procedure turn with a left to 250. We expect it to fly on that heading for a minute, make a right 180, then intercept the ILS and quickly finish the approach. But, the gremlins are now fully active. Instead of stopping the turn at 250, the older and cantankerous FC200 autopilot pauses briefly, then continues drifting left with about a 5-degree bank. This causes one of those “why is it doing that?” conversations pilots flying as a crew sometimes have. After a brief period of speculation, we get to the inevitable “I don’t like this” stage of our discussion, at which point we click off NAV and switch to HEADING mode.

By now, we are 10 degrees past 250, which means we will need to make more than a 180-degree right turn to get back on the inbound procedure. But, just as we are start that turn, RC, sitting in the left seat, says he can see the lights of Ketchikan out of his side window. Given the way the clock is rushing toward 9:30, that is very good news indeed. We call the PAKT FSS and cancel IFR, roll the airplane back to the left, and switch to a visual approach. We are a bit high, so the power gets pulled all the way off, the spoilers go up, and the gear comes down. As the second light on the VASI starts turning pink, we are doing our calculated approach speed of 131 knots, lower full flaps, and start adding power. Crossing over Vallenar Point to the west of PAKT, we have the glide-slope centered and are nicely stabilized. We touch down at the 500-foot mark, hurry off the runway and roll downhill to the FBO.

It is 9:26 as we arrive at the FBO’s ramp and shut an engine down while still rolling, with the nearest passenger opening the door the second we stop. There follows a bag-throwing frenzy as our passengers grab their stuff and, with one minute to spare, catch the ferry. Gremlins notwithstanding, we made it just in time and (perhaps unduly) are feeling a bit proud of ourselves for such a fine demonstration of flexible airmanship. The guys in back, of course, are oblivious to all this, and those going on to Juneau just want to get moving.

As we start the airplane for the short flight to PAJN, we remind ourselves there is no longer any need to rush. We then call for our clearance, and the FSS lady tells us the bad news; there is an Alaska 737 on the ramp, ahead of us in the queue, estimating departure in 10 minutes. In this part of Alaska, the departing flight not only has to take off, but also has to make contact with Anchorage center and clear the area before the next flight is released. Result being, if the 737 goes first, it could easily delay our departure by 20 or 30 minutes. Luckily, the 737 driver comes on the frequency with the fact they have yet to close the cabin door, hinting he may need well more than 10 minutes. The guys in back would not look kindly on a half-hour, fuel-burning departure hold, so we take the hint and tell the FSS station we will be ready to go in 5 minutes.

The gremlins must have been listening because, as we taxi back up the ramp, we notice the Aileron-Spoiler Augmentation System (‘aug/ail’ system) check light works intermittently when first tested. The ‘aug/ail’ system does not have any effect on our takeoff performance, but it does effect the landing distance. If the system is truly not working, it means a partial-flap landing, an increase in the approach speed of 15 knots, and a 50% increase in landing distance. With the courteous Alaska pilot cranking up behind us, we re-test it again and it works OK. Gremlins pacified, we again depart into the night.

It takes about 25 minutes to fly from PAKT to PAJN in a Lear, and the tower has long closed by the time we arrive there and set up for the LDA X approach, in marginal VFR conditions. The gremlins have, of course, disabled the ATIS, and the last we heard about airport conditions was that there were NOTAMS out for multiple closed taxiways. Remembering the ‘aug/ail’ light issue, and just to be safe, we quickly crunch the numbers for a partial-flap approach. We add the required 15 knots to our approach speed and 50% to our landing distance. The runway at PAJN has 8,857 feet of available, so, even with our higher approach speed, we will still have a good 2,500 feet to spare.

When we pass over Coghlan Island (CGL), about three miles from the runway, another Alaska 737 comes on the flight watch frequency, stating he is taxiing out to runway 8 at Juneau, but will hold short of taxiway C. Thoughtful of him, as neither of our airplanes have a working reverse gear, and Charlie is the only useable taxiway off and on the runway. As we pass over the approach end doing 144 knots, the runway lights are a rainy, myopic blur. We touch down, get the brakes and reverse thrust on, and start a 180 on the runway at the 7,000 foot mark. The thoughtful 737 guy on the ground behind us asks if we would mind him entering the runway and back-taxiing to the departure end, before we have exited. Great idea! That will get him off taxiway Alpha, which we will need to use after exiting on Charlie. The gremlins remain silent as we move around each other in the night like well-choreographed ballet dancers on a dark stage.

It is nearly midnight as we taxi into the FBO ramp. Just before shutting down we give the ‘aug/ail’ system one final test…it works perfectly. The gremlins must have fallen asleep in their hidden cracks and crevices, tired out from all that messing around with our hurried night flight. n

About the Author

Leave a Reply