Saturday, April 11, 2009

Payson - Sky Ranch (Carefree) / Beechcraft Bonanza A36 (N3759W) / VFR

I started this flight only minutes before sunset. Flying in the mountains at night makes me quite nervous, but I figured I'd have enough light to get to my destination.

I took off to the west and turned promptly towards Tonto Creek, where the terrain is nice and low, while climbing to 6500 feet for the local terrain around Payson (especially the terrain to the south of the field). The center of the Tonto Basin is at only about 2000 feet MSL, so at 6500 I was fine.

Nevertheless, once the sun had set, it started getting dark quite rapidly. I could still see the terrain below fairly well all the way up to Roosevelt Dam, but after that it started getting really dark, and soon I could only see the outline of the mountains against the remaining light in the sky (and some of the mountain peaks were above me). I constantly checked the chart to make sure I was clear of terrain, and according to that, I had plenty of safety margin below me. But I'd still glimpse a transmission tower or tall trees or something on the ground and they looked a lot closer than I thought they should be, as did the occasional cars I saw on highways below me (some of which I couldn't find on the chart). I could see the brilliant glow of Phoenix on my left, but I knew that Phoenix was about 1500 feet lower than the terrain beneath me.

Despite these misgivings, I trusted my charts and my instruments and kept on course, while squinting into the darkness to see if I could spot Sky Ranch. When I was only a few miles away, I finally saw runway lights. I was pretty high, but I recalled that terrain rises rapidly at either end of the runway within a few runway lengths of the airport, so I preferred to stay high. Finally, on base for runway 24, I could see the ground well enough to make my final descent. Landing was very smooth, despite the quick descent. I pulled off to the south side of the field since the long taxiway on the north side is mainly for residents. It was completely dark by the time I cut the engine on the ramp, so I was glad to be on the ground.

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