Recently I had the opportunity to fly with a very talented pilot who was finishing up his commercial license. In order for a student to satisfy the requirements for their commercial license. They must complete a 100nm 2hr night time flight and with the new regulations they may do this SOLO or with a qualified instructor (CFI) & they can now choose VFR or IFR (recent changes). Overall this is a simple task and doesn’t really require an instructor to tag along. However, if you live in the rockies there are many dangerous airports with many more that become increasingly dangerous if flying VFR at night. One such airport is Baker City Municipal (KBKE) in Eastern Oregon. Baker is not a hard airport to fly into, it is not a short field and doesn’t pose any major challenges to a competent pilot. However, this airport is interesting because the approach from the southeast places you over a ridge, and in an interesting position for CFIT (controlled flight into terrain). Let us take a look at KBKE on the VFR Sectional Chart.
Something out front
You can see there is a peak at 5086ft on V4-444 inbound to KBKE. For safety you plan to cross the peak at 6,500ft MSL and pattern altitude is planned for 4,200ft MSL. You will need to descend 920fpm at 120kts to make it to pattern altitude 1 mile prior to the airport. This procedure is not complex or complicated, but you might have a tendency to start a typical and smooth 500fpm descent to the airport and you will end up overflying it. In the dark you could become disoriented and that should be avoided at all costs.
Here is a quick – daytime – look off runway 13 toward the peak of the mountain I have outlined.
The approach from the southeast should be treated with care and planning. It is not crazy or scary, but necessitates a plan behind it with an emphasis of how to avoid CFIT. A couple options I have seen pilots do: Program and fly an approach (if you are instrument rated) or you could remain at a safe altitude until directly over the airport and then spiral down to enter the pattern with a 45 to downwind runway X. An issue with the second option: You can get disoriented in a very dark night doing spirals down to an airport and in this case an alternate method of flying a square pattern over the pattern itself may be better. The other aspects to keep in mind is that you can see by the map the the city of Baker is just south of the airport and will stand out very well at night and can be used to stay oriented. There is also a freeway just east of the airport and it can also serve as a landmark but it won’t be a prominent as the city.
The RNAV is the safest way to fly into the city but requires you have a solid understanding of instrument flying and are a current and capable IFR pilot. Assuming you are, the JETLI or WOLIP intersections allow for a transition from the MEA to the IAF without a PT. This sets you up for a perfect flying to runway 13 direct or circle to land. Keep in mind however that JELTI and WOLIP assume your coming in via V4-444 at the MEA of 9,000 and the waypoints are set for 8,700.
You can see that the peak is relatively high if departing direct out runway 13. At night this would not be recommended in a typical plane like a piper archer as you only have 6nm to clear 5086ft over the peak. In fact departing runway 13 requires a minimum climb of 460′ per NM to 6,900 which while not terrible, at 90kts requires a sustained 690fpm or a climb gradient of 7.57.
Ok, we have made it to KBKE safe and we are on the ground. Now how to depart and head back the way we came on our XC but keeping in mind the mountain we just came over. We plan to depart but we want to have a valid way that we can feel comfortable avoiding terrain in the black of night. A great option is to read the ODP (Obstacle departure procedure) for 31. This is where having an IFR rating comes in handy and IMO the only good option for departing an airport like Baker in the pitch black of night. Options 2 would be a simple departure on a runway and circle over the runway and climb until you get to a high enough altitude to continue your journey. As mentioned before, be aware of disorientation in a spiral maneuver at night.
The requirements are listed for departing 31 vs 13 would be that we only have a min climb of 400′ per NM to 6,900. At our 90kts we only have to sustain 600fpm and that gives us plenty of time before making a right turn back to the VOR for either proceeding or holding to climb.
Rwy 31, climb heading 306° to 6900, then climbing right turn to BKE VOR/DME R-322 to BKE VOR/DME and hold, continue climb in BKE VOR/DME holding pattern (Hold S, right turns, 338° inbound) to cross BKE VOR/ DME at or above MEA/MCA for route of flight, or for climb in visual conditions, cross BKE VOR/DME at or above 6900, then climb-in-hold to at or above MEA/ MCA for route of flight.
Here is the layout as you might visualize it in your head before ever taking off.
Is Baker a big bad ugly VFR at night airport? Certainly not. Does an IFR rating and solid understanding of the system create a great safety net when flying VFR at night in the mountain? Certainly does. Baker is an airport that most of us who fly in the rockies are not intimidated by and we could fly into this airport VFR at night without any concern, but if your new to mountain flying or if new to the airport, you might want to just study the procedures and why they exist even if you have no plans of using the IFR tools at your disposal.
Of course it’s always an awesome feeling when you arrive back at a 10,000ft runway with lights you can see for miles in out in the valley of the mountains.