Saturday, November 15, 2008

Saint George - Las Vegas - Jean - Boulder City / Cessna 182RG II (N7166V) / VFR

Although I have my doubts about the wisdom of night VFR over terrain that isn't very safely flat, I decided to fly about a little tonight under exactly such conditions. The first leg went very well. The second went pretty well. The third leg was a bit harrowing.

Leg 1 was from St. George to Las Vegas. Although it was already dark, there was a full moon; but more importantly, there were landmarks that I could easily see and follow. St. George has some potentially nasty mountains near it, especially to the north. However, I was going to the south, and the immediate vicinity of the city is relatively flat. Interstate 15 leads south out of St. George and it's easy to spot the traffic. So I left St. George, found I-15, and followed it to lead me through the mountains to the southwest. I also tuned MMM and OZN to make sure I was moving in the right direction. Once through the mountains, it's easy to see Mesquite airport, and beyond that, the Virgin River and the start of Lake Mead shining amid blackness. So I had something to follow on the ground the whole way. Down the Overton Arm of Lake Mead, then west over the lake between the hills roughly on the LAS 066 radial towards Las Vegas. I was given a right base to 1L, which allowed me to turn practically right into Signature's ramp.

The second leg was slightly more delicate. I was assigned 7L, VFR at or below 4500 in the Class B airspace. I was on my way to Jean. The terrain around this area was the site of my most impressive crash online, when I slammed directly into one of the mountains … on a night VFR flight just like this one. Oo-wee-oo! So I was extra careful. ATC gave me a heading of 180. At first I asked if I could have 6500 or below, just to be safe, but then I spotted the Interstate (I-15 again, coincidentally) and followed that down to Jean, which is only 20 miles from Las Vegas.

Landing at Jean still made me nervous. The charts provide elevations but not in great detail. There are some low mountains around the airport, except to the east. As I came in, I occasionally saw my landing light on terrain below—terrain that was surprisingly close. I also saw lights on the ground appearing and disappearing, telling me that there was terrain in between me and the lights. For an instant, even the threshold lights on the runway were blocked, which definitely kept me alert. Fortunately, I landed uneventfully, even with the wind behind me (flying a pattern in the darkness didn't appeal to me, and the runway is long enough).

Then came the leg to Boulder City, which I undertook against my better judgement. One way to get there would be to fly north back into the Las Vegas Class B, then turn east and fly out to Boulder City. But for some reason I decided that I'd try a shortcut. Taking off to the north, if I turned immediately east over the dry lake near the airport, and climbed vigorously to 5500 or above, I could sneak over the mountains to the east and then fly right up to Boulder City. So I tried it. As soon as I started my turn, I began to have second thoughts. It was extremely dark. There was a full moon but it wasn't helping much; I couldn't see it so I think it might have set, or in any case it wasn't in a useful position. I spotted the lake. I had one VOR set to BLD and the radial I wanted to intercept, but I didn't seem to be finding it as expected. I climbed aggressively and finally got above 5000, and then to 5500, which meant I was clear of all terrain between me and Boulder City. Still, not being able to actually see anything below made me very nervous.

I thought I was flying the right way, east through a low spot in the mountains. I then turned northeast, towards BLD. I spotted what looked like the airport, and turned towards it. But after a while the direction of BLD, the lack of lights around the airport, and the arrangement of the runways made me realize that it was Henderson, not Boulder City. So I turned directly towards BLD and flew that way; based on the chart, I shouldn't hit anything. Finally, after flying for what seemed like a long time, I saw another airport, and lights, and I figured that now this was Boulder City, as it matched the charts.

With great trepidation I started my descent. There was no really high terrain around, but like I said, the charts don't usually show elevations with a resolution better than 1000 feet. Trying to make a left downwind into the airport made me very uneasy. Several times I spotted my landing light on terrain below; it wasn't too far away, but it was far enough. But turning base and final was scary. Visibility is limited in the sim, so sometimes it's hard to see the runway when you are on downwind. I ended up making a sharp turn to final perilously close to the hills, and then landing on 27R, wobbling all the way in, although the touchdown was okay. I needed the whole length of this smaller runway. Finally, glad that it was over, I taxied to the ramp. I'm going to have to try to think longer and harder about making nighttime VFR flights like this.

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