Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 22, 2012

20 Things You May Not Know About Night Flying

Darkness comprises roughly half of every day, but that’s no reason to avoid flying at night, if…


Back in the day when I was young and stupid (I'm now much older and still…), long before I discovered I could make even less money in aviation, I was determined to become one of the world's great trumpet players. To that end, I studied with one of Hollywood's hardest-working studio lead trumpet players, Bud Brisbois. After a stint with Stan Kenton, Bud was working regularly with Henry Mancini, playing gigs all over the U.S.

Mancini was in great demand at cities with symphony orchestras to conduct a program of his music. Like many musicians, Mancini didn't enjoy being on the road, and he accepted the dates on the condition that he be flown in by corporate jet with four of his favorite soloists; typically, Bud on trumpet, Bud Shank on sax, Shelley Mann on drums and (I think) Milt Bernhart on trombone.

The musicians would typically depart in one of Clay Lacy's Learjet 35s early on a Saturday morning, arrive in Kansas City or Dallas or New Orleans in time for a rehearsal, play the job and fly home immediately after the concert. Bud said they were always treated like royalty, made great money, and he was usually back at his home in Encino by 2 a.m., Sunday morning. Bud wasn't a pilot and didn't know much about airplanes, but he always felt that was one of the great fringe benefits of working with Mancini, even if he did have to fly in the middle of the night.

Under some circumstances, night can be an enjoyable time to fly. We may not all fly Learjets halfway across the country in the dark, but night can still be a seductress. The weather is usually better, the temperature improves aircraft performance, the air can be almost glycerin smooth and, as the haze of the day settles out, the visibility becomes so good, you could see Hawaii if the Earth were flat.

Less than a dozen years after earning my license, I began ferrying airplanes internationally, and nearly all of my first 40 trips across the North Atlantic from Canada nonstop to Ireland were at night. The time change between Gander, Newfoundland, and Shannon, Ireland, is three hours, so if we departed at, say, 6 p.m. (9 p.m. in Ireland), we'd be landing sometime in early morning in Shannon after a nine- to 11-hour flight.

In those days, I was taught that night was the best time to fly the ocean. Weather was usually better, HF signals carried further, the airplane was happier, and we pilots got to take 36 hours off rather than 24 in Ireland. If the worst did happen and we had to ditch, an emergency strobe could be visible for 30 to 40 miles (provided you survived the landing, got your raft deployed, succeeded in climbing aboard, didn't suffer hypothermia or get eaten by sharks).


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