Night Moves

If you are a VFR-only pilot, you’ll soon see that night flight is (or, in a heartbeat, can be) much like flying on instruments — because you may have to. You might find this out soon after you point your nose skyward on your first night fright…I mean, flight. But there’s more to the story…

I live in the mid-Atlantic region, and I fly single-engine fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. This ain’t the plains of Kansas though, and there isn’t much of a reassuring probability that I’d blithely glide into a flat field somewhere, if that single engine were to quit. (The world doesn’t really change at night, but because we can’t see as well, our ability to deal with it sure does. That’s what spooks me.) Consequently, I get a tad more apprehensive whenever I fly after sunset. My friend and co-worker, Bill, one who is well on his way to becoming an “old pilot“, won’t even fly single-engine at night. So I know I’m not alone.

Most of us do not fly much at night. I know I don’t. I usually don’t find myself carrying passengers at night, and if I knew there would soon be a chance of the flight extending toward sunset (let alone an hour afterwards) I’d do some circuits and bumps to a full stop an hour after the sun went down, as per CFR Title 14, Part 61.57. . . blah, blah, blah. But again, there’s more to it than that.

After the requirements for a pilot certificate have been met, how many of us seek dual instruction after the day is over and the night is young? How often do we practice groping for the runway with a blown landing light, or inoperative panel lights? How familiar are you with a high-workload landing in night IMC after a four-hour cross-country flight? Are you ready for an engine failure at night? Aside from finishing that last hour of a cross-country flight that sometimes ends with a single night landing, or the three times around every 90 days, how many of us take off on a night cross-country? Aside from the freight dogs flying cancelled checks, and a few of us who prefer living the night shift, not a whole heck of a lot of pilots are up to the task. Close to 50% of all pilots do not have an instrument rating. How many of them know how it feels to be deprived of most of their familiar visual references, even though the air is crystal clear? The challenge goes up and our odds go down, the hazier it gets.

Did you know that the fatality rate for night IMC accidents is 60%? If you have an accident at night your chances of survival are less than 50/50. (At least, that’s what it was in 2001, according to the latest AOPA Air Safety Foundation Nall Report.)

True, the air is usually smooth as glass. Other aircraft are ridiculously easy to see, what few of them there are up there. Controllers are easy going, compared to the ones we hear during the day. Frequencies are considerably less crowded. But although the primal fear of engine failure at night is most common, the greatest cause of accidents at night is continued VFR into IMC. Why is that?

    • First of all, the horizon is harder to see. (The same is true for terrain in general.) When can’t see as much on the ground below you, flight by visual references, by pilotage, becomes difficult to impossible — it’s easier to get disoriented and just plain lost.
    • Most of us are not night owls — are bodies and minds are less active and more relaxed at night. Unfortunately, if ever a pilot should operate with a heightened state of awareness, it’s at night.
    • Most airports are located outside of, or at the outskirts of, populated areas. These are precisely the hardest airports to find: an airport outside of a small city with an unpopulated approach path and little in the way of visual references (or perhaps none at all).

Inside Information: Without visual cues, most new pilots approach too steeply, and too fast. This is the realm of the dreaded black hole, of course. At night, optical illusions abound.

  • Of course, the biggest excuse for blundering into clouds is that we can’t see a cloud coming anywhere near as well as we can during the day, so inadvertent IMC, well, it happens.

The next greatest fear, believe it or not, is the flare and touchdown. Most of us seem to know quite well that our peripheral visual cues won’t be around to help us sort through this phase of flight (or if we don’t, one time is enough to convince us so). And most of us rely on what we see in the landing light in front of us in order to judge our sink rate. The Flight Training Handbook, now in print as the Airplane Flying Handbook, suggests looking out toward the landing lights further down the runway, and waiting until you see pavement markings (skid marks, cracks, etc.) before starting the flare.

What you can do to improve safety of flight at night…

If you can’t see it and identify it, don’t trust it. Avoid long straight-in approaches at night, as tempting and available as they may be. Descend from higher up; keep within a safe gliding distance if you prefer, until you’re at a normal pattern altitude. This is especially true if the destination airport is surrounded by higher terrain. If any lights on the ground suddenly twinkle or go out, climb! It might have been because they disappeared behind a hill or trees. Whenever it’s available, use the VASI or PAPI and be sure to fly no lower than “red over white“. And always be absolutely sure that what you think is the airport really is an airport!

Altitude is your friend. To compensate for my own fear my own solution is flying higher at night. I like to make those “cones of safety” as wide as possible. And altitude is time. Your terrain and obstacle clearance should be all the greater, and your radio reception will be, too (especially useful, should you need it). Not that I advocate a lawn dart approach, but I do keep my descent angle equal to or greater than the airplane’s glide angle. (Three degrees is only about half of what you would need to make the airport during an engine out glide in most single engine airplanes.) Note that I said “airplane” and not “aircraft“; the best glide ratio of the Robinson R-22 is about 4:1 for example, which would translate to a 14-degree approach angle! And I pay close attention to the traffic load on roads beneath me, as well as any indication of telephone poles and other overhanging wires.

Take note of that time of the month. I strongly suggest that whenever you’re planning a long trip that will not likely conclude before the day does, try to do it with a full moon (or some phase close to it). Obviously this would exclude non-discretionary mission-critical types of flying.

The five-mile legal minimum is better off doubled. It won’t go without saying (because I won’t let it) that for nighttime newbies, having great visibility will also make life a whole lot easier … and possibly longer.

Forget energy conservation. When over-flying airports en route, click on the pilot controlled lighting. Airports can make great inter-active waypoints at night. Sure, you may waste some electrons, but a lit airport makes a great landmark, and if you should suddenly need it, well, there’s your own personal marquee waiting for you.

Speaking of lights, light your own. You’ll have a few seconds more advance notice for any clouds lying in wait, and other night fliers (birds included) will see you better. (If you’re in snow though, you might feel like you’re doing Warp Five, so it isn’t always the right thing to do.)

FINAL THOUGHTS: Here are some other things you can read to increase your night flying wisdom, and, yes, they’re all right here on iPilot:

References: chapter on night flying in FAA’s FTH, ASF publication “Night Flying