Leesburg, VA (KJYO) to Elkin, NC (KZEF)
We flew down to visit my brother in North Carolina for the weekend where the most convenient airport is Elkin (KZEF). As is my habit, I filed an airways route of CSN-V453-GVE-V476-LYH-V222-FREON (basically, Casanova-Gordonsville-Lynchburg-direct) and that's pretty much what I got with the prefix of "after departure immediate right turn within 2nm of Leesburg, direct STILL, radar vectors CSN".
We took off into the setting sun and Potomac Consolidated TRACON began maneuvering us toward CSN soon after radar identification. As we were turned toward CSN south of Dulles, we were cleared "turn right heading 230 direct GVE when able" as we continued our steady climb to our cruise altitude of 10,000 feet. Before reaching GVE, we were passed off to Washington Center who cleared us "direct destination". Slant G has its advantages.
The air was smooth and cool and we settled in for the remainder of the flight - me in pilot isolation mode on the intercom dealing with ATC and watching instruments, the kid in the back reading a Tom Clancy book and the wife watching AOPA's "Pinch Hitter" video on my Creative ZEN Vision:M.
Eventually, we were passed off to Atlanta Center who was very busy. Shortly after that I picked up the beacon for Elkin and I cancelled IFR. She gave me the familiar "squawk VFR, frequency change approved" (perhaps with a bit of cheer) and I dialed up Elkin CTAF and began descending toward the field.
The GNS 430 helped me line up with runway 25 (calm surface winds this night) and I keyed the mic five times for the medium intensity runway lights. Nothing happened. Figuring I might somehow be out of range of the system, I waited a bit and tried again. Nothing happened. Double-checking charts, landmarks and GPS to confirm I was indeed looking at the Elkin beacon, I tried again. This time something happened: A vehicle turned on its lights and drove out onto what I thought should be my runway.
I broke off the approach at pattern altitude and set up a left orbit of the field as I sorted things out. Various considerations arose:
- Was it a redneck out looking for a drag strip? There was a race on the track nearby, so maybe that sparked a bit of speed envy.
- Was it an airport employee performing maintenance? I checked NOTAMs before leaving and there was no mention of closure. For that matter, there was no mention of the lights being OTS, either.
- Was it somebody trying to help by lighting up the desired approach runway?
- Winston-Salem (KINT) is a short hop away and we had puh-lenty of fuel so there's no need to push it here.
As I circled the field, the vehicle settled on the end of the runway lighting up the number 7 quite nicely. I called "Elkin traffic, anybody on the runway?" thinking maybe they were using a handheld that needed new batteries. To my surprise, I got a response. "Aircraft calling Elkin?" So began the comedy...
I told her I was looking to land, but somebody was on the runway. "There is somebody driving on the runway, but I don't know who it is. Are you trying to turn the lights on?" Yes.
She suggested I click the mic five times. I did. Nothing happened. "Uh, we had a lightning strike out here recently and it sorta messed up the system, but five clicks should turn them on." No kidding. Yeah, I've been trying for several minutes, but couldn't get them to turn on. It looks like somebody is lighting up the runway for me, but I can't guarantee they won't move if I come in for a landing. "If they're looking out for you, I'm sure they'll get out of your way. Can you land in the dark?" Yes, I can. He's lighting up runway 7 just fine, but I don't know if he's going to move. "Well, he must be doing it for you. Hopefully he'll get out of your way or stay where he is." Well, we'll come on in and see what happens, thanks. By this point, I had orbited the field three times and the vehicle had not moved.
I set up a standard downwind, base and final for runway 7 with a steeper than normal approach. On final...airspeed is good...full flaps...steady approach...idle power...cross the threshold at about 75 feet...flare...gentle touchdown right at the aimpoint marker. "Good job," says the mystery voice.
I backtaxied and see the vehicle turning onto the ramp in "follow me" style. As I turn in, he lights up the tie-down spot he wants me in and I obligingly pull up and turn around for a push-back. After shutting down and exiting the plane, the driver of the pickup (as it turned out) got out to greet us.
It was my brother.
He had determined the lights were OTS and figured he'd help me out by lighting up the runway with his spotlight. It worked.