Night flying isn’t for everyone. Much of the joy and wonder of flying disappears when the sun goes down. Even those who claim to enjoy aviating after dark acknowledge that there’s usually not much to see, and the safety margin is significantly reduced.
It’s more than coincidental that many pilots begin their professional careers flying in the dark. If you fly for a package service or on some commuter operations, night flight may be required to graduate from apprentice (copilot) to journeyman (captain). It’s the least choice of assignments.
For general aviation pilots, the news isn’t all bad. If you use your airplane for business, flying at night can double its utility. The weather is often better without the lifting forces of the sun complicating things. Accordingly, the air may be smoother, the temperature may be more agreeable, and winds sometimes die off when the sun hides behind the Earth. Traffic is usually lighter, radio chatter is reduced, there’s no glare to contend with, and the instrument scan may be simpler. Visibility often improves because the haze of day settles out, and the lights of cities and airports sometimes stand out, so you can spot them easier. Whatever your motivation, here are a few ideas that might make your night flying more enjoyable.
1 Preflight has often been touted as the most important aspect of a flight, and that function obviously becomes more difficult at night. Pilots too often tend to skip some parts of the preflight when they may have to wrestle with a flashlight, a fuel cup and a ladder. For that reason, you might consider performing the preflight in the daytime. Make certain the airplane is ready for the trip when you can perform the checks in daylight. This makes the job more of a standard procedure rather than an uncomfortable and inconvenient chore.
2 When natural light isn’t available, you’ll need plenty of artificial light sources to operate in the dark. Many pilots carry a variety of flashlights, preferably those that have a beam adjustable between wide angle and spot. The LED variety is great. I always carry at least three standard flashlights plus two camp lights on any night flight. I can strap a camp light on my forehead under my headset, and it will light up anything I choose to look at. If the instrument lights fail, a wide-beam camp light can save your life. It has mine.
3 Despite the lack of available light inside the airplane, remember that you still need to guard against the midair threat at night. Keep your TIS system or TCAS primed to read local traffic. Another popular hedge is one of the new high-intensity LED landing lights. Unlike the old-style tungsten lights, these will probably outlive your airplane with an estimated 5,000-hour service life. They’re ridiculously bright as well, often on the order of 40,000 candela, what used to be called candlepower. Some LoPresti BoomBeams (www.loprestiaviation.com) put out as much as 560,000 candela. That means you can turn them on before every takeoff, and they’ll make your airplane incredibly visible, day, night, VFR or IFR.
4 Everything becomes more difficult when you’re flying at night, especially if you’re piloting an older airplane with a weak bulb or two in the instrument lights. Add that consideration to your preflight check, and consider whether you really need to fly if some noncritical instrument lights are sporadic or inoperative. You’d be surprised what can become critical during an emergency.
5 Don’t neglect the human factor. Flying at night can be automatically sleep inducing, and ironically, the situation only gets worse when the weather is good, and the sky is smooth. A gentle ride in a velvet sky with the smooth, even drone of an aircraft engine or two can make you want to doze off. I know. Coming home from a long day of flying from Long Beach, Calif., to Ruidoso, N.M., to Farmington, N.M., and finally heading home to Long Beach in my Mooney at 11 p.m., I fell asleep after crossing the Colorado River and finally woke up 80 miles out to sea on my way to Hawaii after overflying the entire L.A. Basin at 12,500 feet. Fortunately, fuel wasn’t a problem. I turned around and landed at Long Beach with about 40 minutes remaining. For that reason, consider flying shorter legs at night and filing IFR on every flight, so you’ll have someone to talk to and the possibility of being psychologically awakened when a controller says your N-number.
6 Similarly, plan your route a little more conservatively at night. Consider routing above major highways if possible and planning en route legs between airports whenever possible. Avoid flight planning your trips by inputting your destination and simply pressing the direct-to button on your GPS.
7 A more conservative route usually means a slightly longer one. That obviously demands more fuel; the more the better. Even if the flight only demands two hours, don’t be reluctant to load four hours’ worth aboard your airplane. The cooler temperatures will allow better performance anyway, so you’ll probably never notice the extra weight. In the words of an old fighter pilot, the only time you can have too much fuel is if you’re on fire.
8 You also might want to fly higher on a night flight to give you more time to handle any problem that might bring you down. Incumbent with the higher altitude is the need to bring along a portable oxygen bottle, especially if you’re over the age of 50. Your mental function won’t be as sharp in the dark, and everyone’s eyesight degrades from blood-oxygen deprivation when you pass about 7,000 feet. Even young pilots will begin to lose peripheral vision above 7,000 feet. The effect is insidious, however, and you’re not liable to notice it. If you’re older than 50, even if your vision is still 20/20, an oxygen bottle should be mandatory for night flights.
9 Think at least three times before contemplating a night flight in icing conditions, regardless of whether you have boots, TKS or even hot wings. Icing at night always seems twice as dangerous, and it’s not easy to recognize when a buildup starts or stops. Additionally, even if you do fly out into the clear, you stand little chance of sublimating an icing accumulation when there’s no sun available.
10 Here in the U.S., there’s no requirement that you have an instrument rating to fly at night, though there often are more stringent night flight requirements in foreign countries. If you’re not rated for instruments, at least be sure you have enough instrument proficiency to handle black hole departures. If a straight-out departure takes you out over a totally unlighted area, consider turning left or right after reaching a few hundred feet, and climb at least a thousand feet with the airport lights as reference before turning on course.
11 What kind of panel lights and how much intensity you use is a personal choice. In days gone by, manufacturers used to insist on red panel lights because they tend to degrade night vision the least. Today, most airplanes come with standard white panel lights that you can turn up or down as necessary. Keep in mind, however, that if you have a problem and need to make an emergency landing, you’ll probably want to turn the panel lights down so that any lights on the ground will become more readily visible.
12 While it’s good to route near highways, don’t automatically assume you can land on them if you have to, though that may sometimes be the case. Many roads are crisscrossed by power lines that you’re not liable to see until just before impact. Highways may still be preferable for route definition because there may be airports close by.
13 Visual perception at night depends upon two photoreceptors in the eye: rods and cones. The cones are concentrated in the center of the eye, and the rods are located around the edges. The rods are far more receptive to dim light. That means if you’re looking for an airport at night, you may see it with your peripheral vision first. If you look to the left or right of where you think an airport or beacon should be rather than directly at it, you’ll be more likely to spot it. Then, you can gradually home in on the light as you get closer.
14 Altitude management becomes especially critical when you can’t see the ground. That means you should become familiar with any high terrain on the en route portion of your flight and know all the appropriate altitudes for pattern and field elevation at your destination. If you need to check a chart in flight, don’t do so with a red filtered flashlight, as some of the writing on charts is in red, and that will virtually disappear under a red light.
15 Landing lights are mounted on the airplane specifically for landing the airplane under low-light conditions. How you use them is up to you. Remember, however, that the visible circle of runway during approach will appear higher than the surrounding terrain. That sometimes leads to hard landings because you may initiate flare too soon. For that reason, some experienced night pilots prefer to turn off the landing light during final approach and land with reference to the changing slant angle of the runway lights.
16 Patterns demand more accuracy at night because there are fewer cues as to your real altitude. Use the old formula of having the threshold 45 degrees behind you before turning base from a wide downwind, and plan to turn final at 350-400 feet above field elevation, just as you would in daytime. Regardless of your choice of using the landing light, monitor the slant angle of the runway lights along with altitude to help determine when to initiate the flare. Slight power-on approaches are usually preferable at night. If the runway is long enough, you can sometimes use the glassy-water seaplane landing technique of flying the airplane right down the runway with a 200 fpm descent.
17 Though some things stand out at night, clouds don’t. They tend to merge with the dark. You may never see one until driving straight into the side of it. Again, an instrument rating is the best protection, but if you should happen to punch a puffie, hold your heading and a level attitude, chances are you’ll drive through it in a minute or two. If the weather is so bad that there are clouds everywhere, take the airlines.
18 If you’re moseying along minding your own business, and the lights ahead suddenly blink, that may be a warning that there’s now something between you and the lights. It could just be a cloud, or it could be a large pile of rocks. If you’ve flight-planned properly and you KNOW you’re clear of all terrain, it’s probably a cloud. Climbing or initiating an immediate left or right turn may be necessary if you have any doubts about your position.
19 Airplanes don’t know when it’s dark, so engine failures are no more likely at midnight than they are at noon. If you should wind up having to dead-stick in the dark, there are two schools of thought. One is to head for a darkened area because you may assume there are no buildings there. Another is to take your chances with a landing site that has at least some lighting. Most pilots agree that you should probably fly toward the brightest area you can find, so you can at least see what you’re about to hit.
20 If you’re flying into a reasonably large airport with good lighting, and visibility is limited because of haze, ask the controller to switch to high intensity. This will dial up every light on the airport, from the rabbit to the runway and taxi lights. At uncontrolled strips, try clicking the mic five, seven or nine times to increase the brightness of runway lights.
20a Finally, if conditions at your destination are at IFR minimums, resist the temptation to duck under. When it’s dark and you’re tired, it’s too easy to drop 100 feet below minimums to avoid having to divert to your alternate. Trouble is, IFR at night is probably the worst possible time to violate approach minimums. Visibility may be marginal, and you’ll probably have less control than in daytime. The runway may be slick with rain. IFR at night adds several additional layers of uncertainty that you can do without.