Night and day: two perspectives on a small airport

Since I moved from Ottawa/Macdonald-Cartier International to Ottawa/Rockcliffe at the beginning of this month, I’ve had a chance to take only two flights, but with two drastically-different results.

Night …

One fine evening I decided to drive to the airport and fly some night circuits to stay night-current. I usually love night circuits: the air is still, the visibility is excellent, the frequencies are quiet, and it’s very easy to spot traffic. This time, though, nothing went right. The area where my plane is parked is extremely dark, and the path through the parked planes is entirely unlit. To make things worse, the dome and map lights in my plane weren’t working. I ran through my checklist using a flashlight, started the plane, taxied gingerly to the runway in the dark (trying not to knock off anyone’s spinner with my wing tips), took off, and then realized that I hadn’t set my altimeter.

At my previous home airport, I always set the altimeter when I listed to the ATIS, but of course, there was no ATIS at Rockcliffe. I’ve flown from many other untowered airports without forgetting to set my altimeter to field elevation, but because I thought of Rockcliffe as my home airport now, I was following my old home procedures. I had last flown in fairly low pressure, so the altimeter was so far off that it was effectively useless, and without the overhead map light I was forced to use a flashlight to see the tachometer. I could have radioed Gatineau for their altimeter setting, but that would have meant digging out the CFS to get the frequency and then reading with the flashlight, when I already had enough on my hands. I just flew my best estimate of circuit altitude, glanced at the altimeter to see how many hundred feet it was off when the wheels touched on my first circuit, then adjusted it when I was safely back in the downwind. After a couple of circuits, my setting was fairly accurate.

The second challenge is the runway lighting. Rockcliffe has no VASIS or PAPI approach-slope lighting, so you’re entirely on your own, and to make matters worse, only 1.700 ft of the 3,300 ft runway is lighted for night operations. Normally, landing and taking off on a 1,700 ft runway in a Cherokee or Skyhawk is no big deal, but at night, with no approach-slope lighting and trees hiding somewhere under me in the dark, it required some fine-tuned flying — more importantly, I tried to imagine coming home at night after a family trip in MVFR and landing, and it didn’t seem like a fun prospect.

By the end of the evening, I’d decided that I’d move the plane back to Ottawa/Macdonald-Cartier as soon as my three-month committment was over, extra cost be damned.

… and Day

Before my next flight, I drove to the airport, opened the lighting dome, reattached a loose ground wire, and restored cockpit lighting (I also put on my canopy cover, to help keep the plane dry in all this rain. Then, in nice VFR weather, I went to the airport last Sunday morning and just flew: no flight plan, no talking to ATC (but a lot of attention to airspace), but just a little tour over the Gatineaus and around within the 25 nm no-flight-plan circle.

I actually like talking to ATC — I learned to fly at a busy airport, and feel no stress around it — but it was a surprisingly relaxing experience flying around entirely on my own, without a fixed plan. After an hour of slow, low-altitude (I do most of my flying cross-country at 5,000-10,000 ft) flying around hills, lakes, and rivers, circling small towns and a covered bridge, and admiring the fall leaves, I came back in along the Cumberland-Rockcliffe VFR corridor, crossed for the midfield downwind, and landed.

My only complaint is that the people at Rockcliffe don’t seem particularly friendly compared to people at other small airports I’ve visited: almost without exception, people on the porch or in the parking lot glance away awkwardly if I smile, nod, or wave, instead of waving back. The people in the clubhouse are mostly tired and/or tense flight instructors, though the dispatch and line staff were friendly enough. I guess you can’t have everything.

I’m still deciding what to do in January, but I might give Rockcliffe a full year so that I can see all its different faces.

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6 Responses to Night and day: two perspectives on a small airport

  1. Flyin Dutchman says:

    Hey Dave

    What we used to do flying into crappily lit reserves at night (black hole effect pretty much everywhere we went) we went off the GPS distance and cross refrenced it with our altitude. Since it works like a hot damn for single runways where the geographic refrence point is the center of the airport, so you get your distance from the center as well you can OBS the runway centerline and track it like a localizer. Basically if the runway is 3000 feet long we would just add .3 nm to our distance for the refrence on the way down to figure out where we needed to be altitude wise.

    Based on a 3000 foot runway…
    We would set ourselves up about 4 miles back at 1000 feet AGL (provided there was no significant terrain around)and for us would have the flap out to approach and then throw down the gear. at 3.3 on the GPS (off the airport) we would leave 1000 agl and start out decent for the field. Now the rule of thumb is half your ground speed and add a zero would give you a rough rate of descent required to maintain a 3 degree slope. So for us at 120 600 fpm would work and we would cross refrence every mile…..2.3 miles back 600 feet, 1.3 back 300 feet etc…and if the trend was being high or low correct it. You are the math guy so you can explain it all a little better but it has always worked for the lay folk like me. Only a few airports had vasi or papis so this is what we used most of the time.



    Safe flying out there !

  2. david says:

    Thanks for the hint. With a smaller plane, my rule on night cross-countries has always been simply to hold circuit altitude (assuming no high terrain or obstacles) until I’m within less than 1 nm of the threshold, and then simply chop and drop. I know that wouldn’t work well on a bigger, higher-performance plane, though, and I should probably start practicing your technique.

  3. Jim Black says:

    Im glad you made it

  4. Flyin Dutchman says:

    That works to 🙂 Its probably easier for a turbo prop to chop and drop because when we select ground idle in the air it drops like brick. We tried the other day to see how steep we could come down. 10,000 5 mile final and still had to add power to make it. PC12 is approved for a maximum 8 degree ILS though which is pretty neat. I had to look into the supplement pages for that and it even is certified to have a pilot relief drain….under the limitations I believe it says you have to be male 🙂 Too funny

    Safe flying.

  5. smurfjet says:

    I share your impression about YRO as well. Dark, alien place, with extra terrestrials (ok ok, maybe not that bad, but they’re weird).

    At least there is the museum. You’d think it would be more friendly because of that.

    I got here looking for METAR RSS feeds, you know of any?

  6. Alex says:

    I read your story here about moving to the smaller airport with interest. I find it most interesting of course that you are starting to realize the value that comes with the larger facility, and that the price you were paying before the NavCan price increases was likely a unrealized bargain. Things like lighting, instrument approaches, ATC, facilities, and all the like. They are the modern conveniences that make things easier.

    However, getting to go fly by yourself, without restriction, atc over your shoulder, well…

    Good luck which ever way you decide to go.

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