Trivia Tester : Strangers In the Night

You’re in a descent, passing through 1000 feet, and approaching your destination airport in southern Arizona, at night. You happen to notice an aircraft at a lower altitude, also near the airport, but it has no lights on. Is it possible that this aircraft is operating legally?

  1. In southern Arizona, at night? The aircraft is most likely carrying highly sought-after and highly illegal cargo from points South.
  2. There is nothing in the Federal Aviation Regulations that says you have to use your lights all the time, only that they must be installed.
  3. You probably saw a “lights out” tactical helicopter operation, typically conducted at very low altitudes, and which in most cases should not be a factor for normal civilian aircraft.
  4. Both choices (B) and (C) are correct.

Answer: It’s legal, provided you’re flying for Uncle Sam. Certain tactical “lights out” operations are conducted at low altitudes (under 500 feet AGL) by U.S. Army and USAF aircraft using night vision equipment. It’s not limited to the confines of a Military Operations Area (MOA) either, although they do try to avoid public use airports by at least five miles. (Such operations, when performed within a MOA, may not be limited to low altitudes, so beware!)

For example, on March 26, 1984, the FAA granted an Exemption (No. 3946A) from Sections 91.73(a) and (b) of the Federal Aviation Regulations to the Department of the Army to conduct certain night flight military training operations without lighted aircraft position lights.  (This regulation is now in Section 91.209, which states that during periods of darkness no person may operate an aircraft unless it has lighted position lights.) Similar exemptions have been granted to the US Air Force, as well. They typically last for a period of years and must either be renewed or otherwise reinstated.

Incidentally, regarding flight between sunset and sunrise (or civil twilight, in Alaska), the rules say “unless it has lighted position lights” and not just “has position lights” although 91.209(b) does allow the pilot to turn off anti-collision lights “in the interest of safety” when so desired. So the answer is choice C. The likelihood of smuggling is always theoretically possible, although in real life it is probably going to be the more legitimate version that you will encounter, rather than the cloak-and-dagger variety. Despite all precautions, a few pilots do have such encounters; according top an official from the Arizona Department of Transportation, each year there are a half dozen or so near misses between civilan and military aircraft.