This past Monday the Boss and I left home base shortly before sunset for the 45-minute flight up to the hunting camp. I've sort of gotten used to landing there after dark, although I still don't like it. We have an agreement: I won't land or takeoff from the camp at night if it's overcast. I only do it if it's a clear night.
Enroute, he turns to me and says he'd like to land first at a friend's camp which is nearby and which, luckily, I'd flown over. Once. These hunting camps all have big flat fields, and they make perfect places to land helicopters, if you have one. "Okay," says I, "if we can find it before it gets too dark..."
Flying helicopters is all visual. These crazy machines have no sense of up and down of their own. Unlike an easy-to-fly airplane, helicopters are notoriously unstable. I must be able to see to control the ship. It is easy - very easy to get "spatial disorientation" (i.e. vertigo) when you can't see outside. The movements of the helicopter mess with your head. Yes, I do have gauges that tell me which way is up and which way I'm headed, but I still need outside references to fly the helicopter upright. And sometimes, flying at night is like being inside of a very dark closet with the door closed.
Try this experiment: Turn off the light in your room and close your eyes tightly. Now push your computer chair away from the desk and spin yourself around - it doesn't even have to be that fast. Nod your head a couple of times. When the chair stops, stand up. The sensation of dizziness will be startling. What happens is that the fluid in those little circular canals in our inner ear gets moving, giving us a false sense of right-side up. The fluid in our inner ear is what gives us our equilibrium.
If this happens in the aircraft (which is constantly moving in three dimensions), your body can send you erroneous messages that conflict with what the gauges are telling you. These messages can be so strong that pilots will disbelieve the gauges and crash.
I've been there, a long time ago in a helicopter that was unintentionally inside a cloud due to my own stupidity. The gauges showed me in a steady right turn, but my body was telling me we were in an extremely steep left turn! I literally froze on the controls, panicked. Somehow...don't ask me how...grace of God or something...I did not crash. We eventually emerged from the cloud in a steady right turn. I was able to regain control of the ship, my composure, and continue the flight. My passenger in the back seat never looked up from his Wall Street Journal, none the wiser as to how close he'd just come to death.
Anyway, we did find the friend's camp and managed to squeak in there while I still had enough light to see. The six hunters staying there were all still out hunting, which pretty much ends when it gets too dark to see through a rifle scope. I shut down and got out, enjoying a crisp, clear, moonless January evening as far from civilization as you can get around here. They eventually all came straggling in and we had a nice visit, with them telling stories of all the deer they saw but did not for some reason shoot. Hunters are a lot like fishermen in that way, I guess.
Finally the Boss decided to leave to go to our camp. It was 6:45 by then and was dark, dark, dark. The field we'd landed in was big, but had trees all around the perimeter, which I now could not see. However I had made a mental note of where a good, big open spot between them was and decided that I'd take off in that direction. When it was time to go, I did just that. Six hunters, all standing around watching my departure. Dear God, please don't let me f*** this up. End result: We didn't hit anything.
This part of south-central Alabama is all hunting land. Consequently, houses are few and far between. I leveled off about 800 feet above the trees for the five mile flight to our camp. Below us was a just spooky sea of blackness. It's really quite unnerving.
"Oh my God, it's dark down there!" the Boss said with just a touch of nervousness in his voice.
"Yup," I shrugged, doing my best Gary Coooper, trying to act casual. "But remember something - if you can't see, that means I can't see. This is why I need a clear night to do this." If he wasn't before, he's convinced now.
A week or so earlier, an air ambulance helicopter was out at three a.m. searching for a lost hunter a little further to the north in the state. Although the crew managed to locate him, the helicopter crashed and killed all three onboard. We don't know what happened yet and speculation runs rampant. But I do know one thing: whatever did happen, the flight over that unlit, featureless terrain did not make things any easier for the pilot and may have in fact compounded his problems.
Finding our camp was not a problem for us Monday night. The GPS pinpoints it with accuracy and it happens to be the only lights around for miles. I descended to 500 feet above the trees and slowed the ship way down. The trick is to keep the visible lights on my side of the aircraft; you never want to turn away from the lights, which could put you into that dark closet I mentioned before. Once I had intercepted the proper approach angle and path, the rest was easy...relatively. (Don't get me wrong, it's still a challenge.)
I wish small helicopters had some form of artificial stability that would right the thing and allow me to get my bearings if I became disoriented. (Have I whined about this before? It seems that I have.) But they do not. Why not? It's a long story - too long for this blog. Basically, there are just too few helicopters out there to make it economically feasible.
Hunting season is over as of today, thankfully, so we won't be going up to the camp nearly as much. Flying at night can be beautiful, and a lot of fun in the right conditions. I appreciate the amount of night time flying I've been able to do, but I won't be sorry to see it end. For now.