of the FAA curriculum for pilots required night flying experience,
preferably close to or into Class Bravo. As a budding pilot, one dark
evening I sat behind the controls of a single engine, “Piper Warrior”
aircraft, tail number 8400A along with my instructor. The plan was
to fly out from Chandler Airport to Williams Gateway airport and then to
Falcon Field in Mesa and then to Scottsdale Airpark and finally home.
Chandler is at the southern extremity of Phoenix, with Williams about 10
miles to the east. Falcon is 10 miles North of Williams and Scottsdale is
about 12 miles further northwest, all under the Bravo umbrella extending
out of Sky Harbor.
started up the 4-cylinder 160 HP engine. Most cars are more powerful than
that. We taxied to the runway and asked for takeoff clearance and told the
controller we are bound for Williams Gateway Airport. “Eight-Four-Zero-Zero-Alpha,
Cleared for takeoff, left turn approved” was the response. We sped over
the southeast-bound runway as fast as the fan on the nose could pull the
plane, and as we reached the dizzying speed of 60 knots (110km/hr) I
pulled the nose up and off we went. Suddenly, we are engulfed in darkness
and behind us lay the huge expanse of Phoenix, a glittering carpet of
made the left turn and pointed east, climbing steadily, the controller
called us. “00-Alpha, Frequency change approved, g’day” he said.
That was nice of him, as we were still in Chandler airspace and were
obligated to be on the Chandler frequency. However, it would be courteous
of us, to inform Williams’s tower that we were fast approaching. The
permission to switch frequencies allowed us to sever the radio connection
with Chandler, fly uncontrolled, and talk to Williams.
to the horizon and at the edge of the lighted carpet of Phoenix, I could
see a blink of a yellow light, followed a second later by a blink of a
green light. That was the beacon of Williams’s control tower. I pointed
the plane towards it, and called. “Williams Tower, Warrior 8400-Alpha,
approaching from Chandler, about 8 miles west, for touch and go and stay
in pattern”. That meant I would fly in, out of the darkness, touch down
at Williams, and then take off right away and then come right back for
more landings. A perfectly useless maneuver that gave me away as a
controller at Williams was a sweet, soft-spoken lady with an Asian accent.
“00-Alpha, clear to land, runway 30L, left base entry approved, touch
and go, left traffic 30L, altimeter two-niner-niner” was her inviting
response. Translated that meant, welcome, come on a shortcut approach
making one left turn (as opposed to the complex “full pattern”
landings, that are force-fed to trainees) and then cleared to take off,
turn left and land again.
control tower was easy to see, the runway was not. A good guess made me
make a left turn correctly and the runway lights shone at me. In the dark,
the depth perception goes away, so the glide slope and power setting were
pure guesses. The soft thud of the wheels brushing the concrete told me
the guesses were right. Retract flaps, full power and off we went. As we
climbed and turned left, came the soft voice, “00-Alpha, clear to land,
30L”. After the third takeoff, I told the lady we were off to Falcon.
The response was crisp, courteous and helpful, “00-Alpha, fly runway
heading, frequency change approved”.
heading from Williams is northwest, almost towards Falcon over a large
segment of the city. The big jets were glowing balls of fire, above us,
heading to Sky Harbor. We crossed a freeway, shining with a thousand cars
of light. Again, I saw the Falcon beacon, well hidden in the midst of the
city and managed to find the runway. Three touch and go-s later, off we
headed north for Scottsdale.
was harder to find, the controller was grouchy, and the landing pattern
was complex. After two touches, I decided to call it a day. Back to
Chandler meant grazing Bravo very close. Flying south, about 6 miles east
of Sky Harbor was a sight beyond expectations. Three massive runways
looked like Christmas decorations, sweeping away from me on the right, so
close it looked easy to reach out and touch. The amber glow of the city
under us, added to the charm. The big jets dotted the sky in a chain
extending into the darkness on the left. We were barely too low and barely
too far to be in the jet flight path, but yet the whole scene looked
surreal, in 3-D.
and feeling the effects of stress, we entered Chandler airspace and the
tower closed down for the night. Using a visual, uncontrolled approach, as
I was about to align for landing, the instructor switched off the entire
instrument panel and landing lights.
“Assume you just had an electrical failure, now get us down,”
she muttered. Seat of the pants flying got us into a smooth touchdown,
concluding a hard to top experience.