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|TERMINAL AERODROME FORECAST (TAF) : San Antonio TX [KSAT] terminal forecast issued on the 9th at 5:33pm CST (2333Z), valid from the 9th at 6pm CST (00Z) through 6pm CST (24Z), 6pm CST (00Z) wind 040° at 7 knots, visibility greater than 6 miles, 25,000 feet broken, 7:00pm CST (0100Z) wind variable at 3 knots, visibility greater than 6 miles, 25,000 feet broken, 8:00am CST (1400Z) wind 060° at 5 knots, visibility greater than 6 miles, sky clear.|
| METAR (Weather Observed) :
San Antonio TX [KSAT] hourly observation on the 9th at 4:53pm CST (2253Z) wind 040° at 7 knots, visibility 10 miles, 25,000 feet broken, temperature 19°C (66°F), dewpoint -3°C (27°F), altimeter 30.31, automated station with precipitation discriminator, sea level pressure 30.28" Hg (1025.4 hPa), temperature 18.9°C (66.0°F), dewpoint -2.8°C (27.0°F).
Like most pilots, a great majority of my flying is done during the day. Flying at night, over a large metropolitan area like San Antonio, can be an incredibly beautiful experience. This was certainly the case for us on January 9th, when I flew with my flight instructor Brad Marcum and my wife Shannon. This would be a flight serving a visual feast but also a flight with many lessons learned.
Night flying for all its beauty, can be a challenging experience. The view out the window is very different from the day and when flying over unlit areas, can easily make a pilot start to feel spatially disoriented since a distinct, visual horizon has been lost. Richard Collins, editor-at-large for Flying Magazine, points out - in my mind very accurately - that a pilot flying at night is as experienced as the number of night flying hours in his logbook. Pilots can have hundreds of hours but only a handful of hours flying at night. It's easy for that lack of night flying experience to show, as it did for me that Friday night.
We depart San Antonio International Airport around 07:30PM after a thorough preflight with flashlights out on the dark ramp. Lifting off into the darkness was exciting. Soon our eyes were filled with a thousand points of light as we leveled off at 2,500 feet en route to Stinson Municipal Airport - on the southern edge of the San Antonio metropolitan area. Stinson is a great airport, in Class D airspace with a great group of air traffic controllers used to handling large volumes of flight training activities.
On our way south, ATC approved a quick detour to overfly San Antonio's newest stadium - the SBC Center. Shannon captured some incredible photos using the ISO 3200 film speed on my Canon EOS 10D. There was just barely enough light for her to capture sharp images, hand holding the camera in the back seat.
Just a few minutes later we were flying to Stinson which I was able to see from a distance. I was soon passed off to the tower controller who advised me to enter the traffic pattern for a right base to runway 32. Trying to orient myself by visual reference alone, I was convinced that I would be able to distinguish between runway 32 and nearby runway 27 (the runways form a V). I entered a right base to the runway and began descending. My first lesson learned just around the corner...
As I turned final after being cleared to land, my flight instructor asked me what runway I was landing on. I answered, of course, runway 32. He challenged that answer and asked me to take a peek at my heading indicator. Uh oh. It read almost 270 degrees. Arrgh! I was lined up for the wrong runway. This was a disappointing and somewhat embarrassing moment. I advised the tower that I would be executing a go-around and proceeded to do so.
After regaining my situational awareness, I proceeded to do four landings, to a full-stop, by flying a closed pattern at Stinson. This included a landing with the landing light turned off (which makes the pilot rely more on other visual cues to gauge the proper glide slope and height above the runway when landing). I felt good with all of the landings, especially since a brisk crosswind had developed aloft requiring me to set up a side-slip in order to compensate.
After the fourth landing we took off to proceed back to San Antonio International Airport. We asked San Antonio Approach Control for a practice ILS to Runway 30L and I donned my foggles in order to earn some simulated instrument time. All went well as we were cleared for the approach. I captured the localizer and felt good about keeping the needles nicely centered all the way down to the runway.
As is often the case, however, the landing itself is not the end of the story. As I applied brakes to slow our ground roll, I received an urgent call from the tower..."Cessna 614SP expedite clearing the runway at taxiway Lima, landing traffic on short final." I looked up and saw taxiway DELTA, just a few feet ahead of us. Since I knew traffic was close behind us I was rushed to make a decision. If the tower needs me clear of the runway, why don't I just take DELTA? Why in God's name would I stay on the runway and taxi down it for a taxiway further away? The confusion only lasted a few moments as my instructor pointed out that there was a Cessna Caravan at DELTA that had just exited the runway. Fortunately, the caravan cleared the area and tower had me take DELTA...
The lesson learned was a simple but powerful one. I should have had a taxi-diagram ready to go for a quick reference. It would have clearly shown me that LIMA was just a few feet down the runway and would have let me make a quick decision to throttle up and make a quick exit as requested by the tower controller.
As we taxied onto taxiway GOLF, we were handed off to the ground controller. We could see the American Airlines jet land on the runway just a minute or so later. The ground controller seemed terse as he gave us instructions to taxi on GOLF until we had passed the terminal and then to hop onto taxiway HOTEL which parallels GOLF. As we taxied past the terminal, the ground controller made a fiery call about us not taking the next taxiway. We told him we'd take ALPHA which - from what I could see - was the first taxiway past the terminal...I was trying to follow his instructions! We taxied to Alpha and cleared GOLF with minutes to spare before we passed the American Airlines jet on GOLF heading towards the terminal.
And with that we come to the third lesson learned. Let me start by saying that I have a great deal of respect for ATC. They work very hard to keep all of us safe. At the same time, I've never believed it is appropriate - or professional - to raise their voice on the air and treat a pilot like a child. In this case, I felt I was following his instructions. Without a designation of WHICH taxiway he wanted me to take, I was left to make a visual judgement about when I would be "past the terminal."
That said, pilots have a responsibility to make sure they are familiar with taxiways at busy airports in order to minimize the real danger of runway incursions. Controllers, likewise, have the responsibility to be specific in their instructions. Let's be patient with each other...I can't remember the last time a pilot scolded a controller for making a mistake (and I've heard my share of them). On the other hand, it seems like some controllers take special pleasure in dishing out reprimands. Only by working together, with mutual respect, can we ensure the safest experience at our nation's airports...