Night Flying Tips From The Night Owls

The rocks are just as hard at night as during the day. Here are some tips to avoid them.

For many general aviation pilots, night flying is a beautiful escape from the hustle and bustle of flying during busy days. There is less traffic, the air is smoother, the radios seem quieter. However, night flying in single-engine aircraft has its downsides as well. Even maintaining night currency can be a challenge, especially during the long summer days. In any event, the allure of taking off into a beautiful sunset goes hand in hand with respecting the hazards associated with flying at night.

To our airline and military friends, night flying is just part of the job. Flying day and night through multiple time zones is a routine part of the schedule. In fact, the North Atlantic Organised Track System (NAT-OTC) is designed so that most eastbound flights to Europe begin after dinner and land before breakfast. As a reward for finding Europe in the dark, the daylight tracks bring the airline pilots home! Military pilots, especially bomber and attack, will tell you that the night is their best friend. It's a lot easier to hide an immense B-52 from the enemy at midnight than at noon. So, it is probably a good idea to see the night through their eyes. Here are some tips from the nighttime pros.

While it is legal to take off into a moonless night with 3 miles visibility and a 1,500-foot ceiling, it is not advisable. Once you are airborne, it's like flying in your bedroom closet with the door closed. Even on a severe, clear, moonlit night, taking off over water or in the desert can be extremely disorienting. Think of a navy pilot leaving the lights of the carrier behind and catapulting off over the dark ocean. The impact of the acceleration on your inner ear, the sudden loss of the runway lights, and the immediate adjustment to the new environment require thoughtful preparation. The night takeoff briefing should include the desired pitch attitude and airspeed after takeoff. And no turns below 1,000 feet. Through a minimum of 1,000, the pilot should be cross-checking between the window and the flight instruments to ensure the aircraft is climbing. If the two do not agree, then trust the instruments. Same is true on final approach. The pros use all the navigation aids available on every night landing to include VASI, PAPI, ILS and RNAV glidepaths. More recently, Garmin has added a "VFR Approach" glidepath to its products. And, as in instrument flying, be careful about sudden head movements that can breed disorientation. The blindfold cockpit check was designed for nights such as these.

During their regular trips to the altitude chamber, mili- tary pilots are asked to take off their oxygen masks when the chamber reaches 25,000 feet. First, they notice that colors go away, then that their vision begins to follow. As soon as their mask is back on, the lights and colors bloom. Well, the FAA reminds us that the same things happen, although in not as dramatic fashion, as low as 5,000 feet. 

After three hours between 8,000 to 12,000 feet, your blood oxygen level will reduce, your night vision dull, and a bit of fatigue set in. This will be especially apparent if you live at sea level but are flying out west over the mountains at night.

Two inexpensive tools can give you the same edge that fighter pilots have in their oxygen masks. An inexpensive pulse oximeter and a can or two of personal oxygen will come in handy. Checking your blood oxygen takes about five seconds, and three or four swigs of these commercially available 95% oxygen cans will make the lights bloom and refresh the pilot for the approach and landing. It's not a bad idea in the daytime as well!

Unless you're an octopus, you can't hold a flashlight and fly. Those 90-degree, OD Green D cell flashlights that military pilots carry have a secret weapon. It's called a "metal clip." The clip and the 90-degree head allow the pilot to clip the flashlight to their parachute harness and point it at the instrument panel...hands off. These lights also have red lenses, which help preserve your night vision.

For private and commercial pilots, there is no specific requirement for the type of flashlight we carry. And there are some marvelous LED lights out there. However, if they won't point where the pilots need light without being held, they are not much use. Velcro, clips, headbands, clip lights--- whatever is used, the pilot should make sure they pass the "dark hangar test."

Sit in the aircraft at night with the hangar door closed, aircraft lights off, and flashlight on. Then picture yourself flying in the turbulent air at night, with only your flashlight, which could be in your lap, balanced on the seat next to you or falling to the floor. Then go purchase the perfect red night lamp for your cockpit needs.


Flying at night, or over water, is not the time to wonder if that intermittent engine roughness should have been checked. Predictably, incandescent landing lights, especially those located on vibrating engine cowls, fail more at night than in the daytime. Electrical failures are obviously more critical, as the dark cockpit hangar exercise highlights. Paying attention to the health of our trusty aluminum and composite magic carpets is always important but even more so at night. We don't want to be caught up in the old story---just before a night emergency landing "turn on your landing light; if you don't like what you see, turn it off."

A good thing to remember is that large dark areas are probably mountains and bright clusters are cities. It seems simple enough, but, sadly, it claims a few pilots every year. Flying across the U.S. from the East to the West Coast is an experience not to be missed. However, the most common southern route through New Mexico and Arizona is characterized by airports about 50 miles apart, separated by north/south ridgelines that can reach to 9,000 feet. Radar coverage at lower altitudes is spotty at best. If the pilot can see the bright lights of the city and airport on the other side of the mountain, this is good.

However, start the descent too soon, and suddenly the city disappears. Not good. The mountain is now in the way. It is often best to fly directly over the city lights and let down only after receiving assurance from your aircraft terrain display, or out the window, that the ridgeline is safely behind you. The same situation can occur on final approach in hilly terrain, or even in flat terrain if the descent rate is allowed to increase to an unacceptable level. If the lights you are aiming for disappear, climb immediately and check your altitude.

Night flying is a treat for so many reasons. It just feels like everyone is less stressed, traffic is easier to see, and the air is smooth and cool. Paying attention to your flight instruments, thinking about your night vision and oxygen needs, having a useful flashlight strategy, and taking care of all the little maintenance writeups can really boost your confidence. And when in doubt, climb and check your altitude. Fly safe! PP

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