Be More Cautious At Night
Begin with a careful preflight; you should be in the habit of checking the airplane’s lights, even in daytime, because you never know when an unexpected headwind or delayed departure will require a landing after dark. If on a poorly lit ramp, dig out the flashlight to peer under the cowling and look at the control hinges.
Take your time during taxi and run-up. Moving around at night requires a bit more deliberate care in taxi speed to maintain orientation and centerline alignment. Do not program your GPS and set up frequencies while moving; stop and set the brakes to perform these chores. When running up, be alert for unnoticed creeping toward the edge of the pavement. Avoid throwing on strobes and other bright lights before taking the runway, out of consideration for the pilots around you. But if asked to “line up and wait,” have every light on to show that the runway is occupied.
As you sit in position, take a second to note the appearance of the runway lights. They will be just below your shoulders, and when you’re in the landing flare, you’ll want to see them just a little below where they are in your static position. Notice that the two lines of runway lights are evenly sloped angles converging on the red lights at the departure end. Do not allow one line of lights to be straighter and the opposite one to form a larger angle; that means you’re off the centerline. Don’t crowd the edge lights, because they are 10 feet or so out in the grass.
Advance power smoothly and track the centerline, planning to rotate and lift off with sufficient airspeed to be well above the stall. Upon breaking ground, use the attitude gyro to hold a safe pitch angle and keep the wings level. The initial climb is most likely to be taking place in a “black hole” until you gain enough altitude to see a landscape of ground lights.
Once you’re safely away from the hazards of ground obstructions, start looking for lighted landmarks to guide your VFR flight. Use the compass heading to settle arguments in your situational analysis, and take a look back at the airport to see how it appears among the lightscape surrounding it. Roadways filled with car lights make good visual references, small towns in the blackness of open country can provide orientation, and those tower obstructions that you can barely see in daylight suddenly become valuable location identifiers when their lights show up at night. The relationships of airport beacons to their accompanying cities provide excellent verification.
Remember that you cannot judge altitude in the dark; you must pay attention to your altimeter and know your safe altitude for your area. If you are approaching higher terrain and you begin to see the nearest lights disappearing from view, take it as a warning that you are not going to clear the upcoming ridge.
Keep a continuing weather watch during night flight. Monitor ASOS and ATIS broadcasts to make sure weather isn’t moving into your route, and note the spread between temperature and dew point. When the gap closes to two or three degrees and any moisture is available to saturate the atmosphere, ground fog will start to form, starting in the coolest low places, often where airports are located. Maintain a healthy fuel reserve in case you need to deviate to an alternate airport.
Consider your own state when flying at night. Because a higher level of attention to detail is needed for night flying, avoid flying fatigued. It’s one thing to arrive back home an hour or so after sunset, and quite another to leave a meeting after 10 p.m. and try to get home in the wee hours of the morning. If you’ve been awake for 20 hours, you have no business trying to fly at night. Find a motel room and fly home in the morning.