Decision Training for Pilots — In the Dark

My first instructor told me prior to our first night lesson that the airplane does not know that it is dark outside. The airplane flies exactly the same, it’s the human body that acts differently at night. Night flying can be wonderful. But it has dangers that the pilot must respect.

Scenario: A student pilot flies on a solo cross-country flight 100 miles from the home airport. When the pilot lands and shuts down the engine he inadvertently leaves the Master Switch on. One hour later the pilot returns to the airplane to discover that the battery is dead. The pilot spends another half-hour arranging for a power cart to be taken to the airplane for a jump-start. The pilot departs one hour behind schedule and the sun is going down. The pilot has never made a solo night landing, but faces one now.

What should the pilot do? What should you do?

You could… Land somewhere else before it gets dark? Continue on because you have to be at work first thing in the morning and night landings are no big deal anyway? If a night landing is attempted, and while on final approach you see that the runway lights appear to “twinkle” what is happening and what should you do? What if you turn on the landing light and nothing happens? Was it burned out all along but you never checked it because you never thought you would be flying at night?

The pilot in this story has many concerns to weigh. Landing somewhere else before dark is probably best, but what if you can’t get to another place before dark. At night “twinkling” lights usually means that tree branches or power lines are passing between your eyes and the lights. Are you too low? Should you go-around? We should check the landing light during preflight but can you land an airplane at night without a landing light? Pilots should ask themselves these questions and understand the reasoning behind night-procedures and gain a healthy respect for night flight.

The Old Way: The instructor not interested than imparting more than the basics would say, “C’mon, it’s dark enough. I have been here all day you know. The book says you need 10 takeoffs and landings at night to get your ticket. Did you bring a flashlight?

The Private Pilot PTS does not require any part of the checkride to be conducted at night, but the examiner must orally evaluate the applicant to determine that they can explain:

FAA-S-8081-14 2-38
REFERENCES: AC 61-21, AC 61-23, AC 67-2; Pilot’s Operating Handbook, FAA-Approved Airplane Flight Manual. Objective. To determine that the applicant exhibits knowledge of the elements related to night operations by explaining:

  • Physiological aspects of night flying including the effects of changing light conditions, coping with illusions, and how the pilot’s physical condition affects visual acuity.
  • Lighting systems identifying airports, runways, taxiways and obstructions, and pilot controlled lighting.
  • Airplane lighting systems.
  • Personal equipment essential for night flight.
  • Night orientation, navigation, and chart reading techniques.
  • Safety precautions and emergencies peculiar to night flying.

NOTE: The examiner shall orally evaluate element 1 and at least one of the elements, 2 through 6.
REFERENCES: AC 61-21, AC 67-2; AIM; Pilot’s Operating Handbook, FAA-Approved Airplane Flight Manual. Objective. To determine that the applicant:

  • Exhibits knowledge of the elements related to night flight.
  • Inspects the interior and exterior of the airplane with emphasis on those items essential for night flight.
  • Taxies and accomplishes the before takeoff check adhering to good operating practice for night conditions.
  • Performs takeoffs and climbs with emphasis on visual references.
  • Navigates and maintains orientation under VFR conditions.
  • Approaches, lands, and taxies, adhering to good operating practices for night conditions.
  • Completes all appropriate checklists.

BOTTOM LINE: Night flying and night flight instruction can be fun and rewarding. Do not forget that it is a great learning experience as well that can be filled with decision situations.