When I was small, younger than five, my family went to my grandparents’ house for dinner every Sunday evening. In the autumn and winter months, even though it was an early evening meal, we drove home in the dark.I still remember how the shadows cast by the streetlights moved across my brother’s side of the car, slipping down and disappearing into the way-back. The back seat was filled with light for a moment, and then another shadow would be sliding along the same path. The car tick tick ticked for home, the soft voices in the front seat, my little sister already asleep, and my brother’s eyes watching out the windshield, while I was entranced by the shadows slip, slip, slip.
I woke up in the lower bunk the next morning, always surprised that I hadn’t made it home to get out of the car myself.
We flew up to Sonoma Valley to stay with our friends on their vineyard the weekend after Thanksgiving. It was our first instrument flight, filed from start to finish. It was great to have filed because our friend Marcy was able to watch our progress on her computer at home. She knew exactly when we were going to be landing, and was there to meet us. (To retain our independence and make sure she didn’t have to drop us back at the airport, we rented a car. We had lunch nearby, so it was good that she met us “in town.”)
We got a little bit of re-routing on the way up, shunted around the extensive Class B for San Francisco International (SFO) and Oakland (OAK) airports, but that probably only added five minutes to the flight. After the second hour, Rudy complained that it was too long to be in the plane and he didn’t want to be in the plane for another hour. He calmed down with a snack and a little nap, and we landed after that one more hour. Marcy said that when she drives down it is six and a half hours if she lucks out traffic-wise.
It’s not the sort of trip I would want to do for a single day, but it’s great for a night or two.
We had a great afternoon, evening, and following day on the vineyard. We visited the Charles M. Schultz Museum, a chocolatier, and Train Town. Dexter spotted a snowy egret and insisted on a lot of “brisk walks” to check the habitat around the house for more critters (deer, squirrels, possibly a fox; last visit: a coyote up close).
As we settled in for the second night, after a second delicious meal, the water went out in the house. And then I checked the weather and it was going to be raining the next day. Nell check with her old roommate, who we were meant to be meeting in San Francisco, and it sounded like the fun things to do required a dry day. So we packed the boys up, thanked our host profusely for such a wonderful break from Los Angeles, and piled them into the rental car.
We arrived at Sonoma County Airport after 9pm, so it was closed, but there was a very nice security guard (really a fireman) who let us in the gate. The whole airport was dark, except for some flood lights. The windows on the plane were misted. It was frigid cold, so I piled everyone else into the plane and made sure they had blankets (we need a couple more blankets), strapped on my little camper’s headlamp, and puttered around the plane doing my pre-flight inspection. After a more-than-usual careful look (finding a spot to land in an emergency is more difficult at night) I climbed in and fired up.
I reversed our course in the flight computer. I dialed up the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) and announced my intention to taxi to the end of the active runway. There was no one else on frequency. I turned on all my lights and started the long taxi to the beginning of the runway.
As I followed the painted yellow line off of the ramp (parking) area and onto the taxiway, I realized that the whole airport was dark. I should have warned Nell and the boys what I was about to do, but I forgot. I clicked the push-to-talk button five times and the automated system turned on all of the twinkling blue lights that line the edges of the taxiways and the white ones that line the edges of the runways. It was great. Next time I’ll warn them.
(While flying over Paso Robles on the way home I turned on their lights, too, just to see the outline of the runway where I received both my private pilot and instrument rating certificates.)
I had to do my run up, and carefully study my chart, check the area around the airport and my flight path south. Then I checked with my passengers (Dexter was already looking a little glassy-eyed, toasty under his blanket and the chugging heater) and rolled onto the runway. We accelerated smoothly down the well-lit tarmac and lifted off into the starry night. We climbed up over the town of Sonoma and then the Sonoma Valley. I spoke to NorCal Approach and they gave me a discreet code and promised to help me along the edges of the Class Bravo airspace on my way home.
At 8,500 feet I leveled out and we hummed along. Somewhere over San Jose Nell started to fade. As I turned south at Hollister, I checked and she was sound asleep. So were both boys, under their blankets in the back. I pressed the button on the communications panel to isolate my headset from theirs, so that the occasional ATC announcements and conversations didn’t disturb them, and I watched the small towns and highways glitter below.
Every now and then Nell would wake up and look around. She asked if I needed her to stay awake with me, but I said I was fine. She would try to get comfortable again and doze off. The boys slept the way children can, oblivious to the discomfort of being curled in a bucket seat with headphone clamped onto their heads.
After we cruised by Santa Barbara, two hours later, I started the descent. Nell woke up and we talked about Ventura, Oxnard and the beach. It was near midnight as we flew over Point Dume and I signed off with SoCal so that I could talk on the CTAF at Santa Monica (the tower closes at 9pm). I slowed us down as I came onshore, dropping flaps and the manifold pressure. As I lined up for landing I glanced at the boys, still snoozing away. I dragged the wheels onto the concrete for one of my smoothest landings ever.
We taxied over to the tie-down and Nell agreed to jump out and move the car while I cleaned up the cockpit. We got in and out without letting in too much cold air. After moving all the luggage I moved the boys. Rudy was awake enough to be helpful getting out. Dexter was a little more like a piece of luggage himself and his first comment as he looked around was, “That was one of the shortest flights ever.” Nearly three hours. On the way home I asked if he knew when he had fallen asleep and he said, “We were still gaining altitude really quickly.” Ah, the initial climb.
As we waited at a light I thought of how hard a six and a half hour drive would have been for me and how great the three hour flight was, even though everyone else was asleep and it was too dark to see a lot of the landscape I like watching. And I thought of my parents driving me home at night, asleep in the back seat.