Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 22, 2012

20 Things You May Not Know About Night Flying

Darkness comprises roughly half of every day, but that’s no reason to avoid flying at night, if…

15 An engine failure at night isn't any more likely than in daytime, but there are few hard-and-fast rules for handling one. Forced landings take on a whole new level of difficulty when you can't see where you're landing. The old joke used to be: If the engine quits and you're forced to land into a black hole, turn on the landing light for the flare. If you don't like what you see, turn it off. These days, GPS's nearest-airport function has relegated the problem of finding the ground academic, since you can interrogate the system to learn the exact elevation at any point. If you did your preflight preparation correctly, you should know what local ground elevation is below. Most experienced night pilots agree the smartest idea is to fly toward something as bright as possible, so you can at least see what you're about to hit.

16 If well-lit areas such as cities appear to blink, or suddenly disappear completely, beware. There may be something in between you and the lights that you can't see, clouds, an antenna or, worst of all, big rocks.


17 Altimeter settings become more critical when the ground may be invisible, and you should take every opportunity to update yours, factoring in any necessary corrections. Every pilot knows it's especially important to update the altimeter as you approach the destination, but it's critical over a boondock airport with minimum lights.

18 Consider using square patterns at night with a relatively wide base to give you plenty of time to judge the final turn and the landing approach. Leave the constant-turn, carrier-style approaches to the Marines. Square turns and a longer, higher final provide a hedge for judging your approach path. If there's no ILS but there are VASI or PAPI lights, use them. They're a good visual representation of a three-degree glide. Remember that a standard glideslope is 300 feet/nm, so if you have GPS or DME on board, you can construct your own manual glideslope—1,500 feet at five miles, 900 feet at three miles and 300 feet at one mile.

19 If there's haze in the air and the airport lights are in sight but barely, you can ask the controller to go to high intensity or click the mic five, seven or nine times (after hours or at some uncontrolled airports) to boost the brightness.

20 Finally, if conditions are IFR and near minimums, avoid the temptation to duck under. You may start seeing lights through the bottom of the overcast as you descend, something you might not see in daytime, but you need to have a clear view of the runway lights at minimums to complete the approach. Duck under even once, and you may discover the real meaning of the phrase, "What a difference a day makes."

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