It's not as dark up here as I thought it might be-- I'm glad for the big, bright moon overhead. At around 10 miles out, I call Martinsburg Tower and request inbound for landings. I'm struggling to pick out the airport in the sea of lights in front of me. I see a flash of white... and then a flash of green... the airport beacon. Last time I was here- on my long solo cross country (during the day), I had to remind the tower to turn off the beacon. It had been IFR conditions earlier that day, and I guess they forgot to switch off the beacon after conditions improved. I remember that the beacon was to my left as I departed that day, so that must mean the beacon is between me and the runway right now. But why can't I see the runway? Now only 5 miles out, I can start to pick out the huge C-130s sitting in a row- so I know for sure that's the airport. But where's the runway?
I feel my pulse start to pick up, and a knot starts to form in my stomach. I look again at the MFD and try to match the direction of the runway on the screen up with any of the lights out the windscreen. At a little more than a mile, I start to turn downwind, figuring that I'll pick up the runway once I'm oriented in the same direction. I also ask the controller if the lights are all the way up. He tells me he'll put intensify them. Oh, wait- was that the runway? If so, I'm already abeam the numbers! I better pull it together quick! I start to descend and take out a little power. I'm still too fast to being putting in the flaps. The tower controller has told me to call left base for 26, and as I turn, I look through my side window and try to find the runway. Where'd it go? Now, I'm fast, lost, and a little disoriented-- and I've already descended 300 feet.
This is not where I want to be. I tell the tower that I've gotten disoriented, add power, start to climb and turn back toward where the runway is. Tower is mercifully easy-going and tells me to do what I need to get myself together. I turn back along the runway on an upwind, and then overfly the field. OK. Now I can see the full runway. I tell tower I'd like to fly out, do a right 360, and then reenter the downwind for another approach. I'm cleared for the option on 26, and I start my turn back to downwind.
This time, I keep the runway in sight, and things go more as planned. I'm talking out loud to myself by this point, but that's okay. Whatever it takes to keep myself alert, safe, and flying the plane. I land, clean up the flaps and trim, and then push the power back in for another go. After four more touch-n-go's at MRB, I say goodbye to the easy-going controller and depart back to the south. I decide to head for ADOYI and do the RNAV-17 approach back into Leesburg. Of course-- it's all visual, but it calms my nerves about my upcoming stage check, ensures I maintain obstacle clearance, and ensures I'll have the runway in sight well before landing!
As part of the experience required to get my commercial rating, I need to have 5 hours of night flying and 10 night landings at a towered airport. Since my instrument stage check isn't till next week- and my commercial instructor is tied up with an unexpected full time student this week, I thought I'd take advantage of the time and do a few night landings tonight. 5 towered (and one untowered) landings, and 1.3 hours of hobbes time later, I'm back on the ground in Leesburg.