Flyboy After Dark

Night flight carries all the pitfalls of daytime, plus a few more you might not expect


Night flight can be deadly, but its also a great experience. Not many small aircraft are in the sky. The air is often smooth and clear. The lights below, of cities and towns are fascinating. Part of the reason you learned to fly in the first place (remember?) was this sensation of being part of a different experience.

Night flying is a part of the whole set of flying skills. If you plan to use the airplane to its maximum potential, youll need to be able to fly it at night. As your skill level progresses, with suitably equipped aircraft to fly, you can venture into safe night IFR flight.

You will need to stay current at night flight if you set your sights on being a competent pilot. Its also a way to buy some insurance that you can deal with all kinds of flight situations, day or night. You can run into unplanned night flights if you travel cross-country even relatively short distances.

Late departures, short winter days and strong headwinds can bring the curtain of night down in a hurry. Whether you wanted it or not, you are set for a night arrival at your destination.

If you are a pilot flying in the daytime, there are a lot of visual cues to help you out. When you fly in daytime toward your home airport there are many terrain features that are guides along the way. The runway usually shows up quite clearly, even in haze, at four to five miles out.

In the traffic pattern you have many familiar ground reference cues. Certain rooftops, a service station, a high school track, become places where you are used to making base and final approach turns. Finally, you aim your airplane toward the runway numbers, and complete your landing.

At night, all those visual aids will vanish. Landscape features disappear. The airport boundaries are blurred by the nearby city lights and lighted sporting events.

Instead of giving you perspective and sharp outlines, the eye is tricked by illusions. The narrow runway can seem longer, a wide field looks shorter. And worst on worst, well-lit highways can appear to be runways, which beckon the unwary pilot to land. Final approach to the real runway can be a stress box as you descend over invisible obstacles.

What You See Aint What You Get
There are optical illusions that are unique to life after dark, too. The center of the eye has a night-vision blind spot because that part of the retina is crowded with color vision receptors instead of the more sensitive black and white receptors. If you look directly at a dimly lit object, it may disappear.

Given the limitations of our retinas, the way to see best at night is to shift your focus on a particular object. Look slightly to one side of it to get it into best focus. This is very important in successful night landings. When youre in the landing phase, remember that lining up with the far end of the runway is one thing; staring at it is another. Pilots who constantly fix their focus over the nose tend to flare too high and drop down to a firm landing. Cross-check altimeter and the vertical speed indicator just before touchdown. Know the runway elevation and length, as well as the height and location of any obstructions around the airport.

Shifting your focus from side to side and from short to long will avoid the most common problem: target fixation. The term originated from the tendency of inexperienced fighter pilots to lose track of other visual cues and run into the target. The same thing occurs quite frequently on routine night landings. If all of your focus goes to the spot on the runway where you hope to touch down, be prepared for a bounce and balloon.

Another fairly common night illusion starts when you focus intently at a single light, off in the distance. Its called the autokinetic effect. The light should remain where you first fixed on it, but it seems to drift. This has happened to many pilots on a dark night, with lots of stars. Staring at a single star convinces the pilot that it is another airplane. Cure the misconception immediately by stopping staring, and then comparing the movement of the light with other lights in the sky. Check your flight instruments, to verify your heading and altitude.

When you have complete darkness and a very clear sky, stars can seem to merge with scattered ground lights. If the stars are mistaken for a visual ground reference, you may roll the airplane inverted or set up a low-altitude dive. The answer here is to use your instruments to verify what you see outside and ignore any other feelings or sensations you may have.

There is little doubt among pilots, that night flying carries more risk than flights during the daytime. After sunset, running into unplanned bad weather, electrical failure, getting lost or losing an engine can all be more hazardous after dark. But the main killers of night-flying pilots are well known: Weather, fuel and alcohol are the murderous trio.

It should come as no surprise that about 10 times as many aircraft accidents occur on dark nights as moonlit ones. Thats because night flying is a close match to instrument flying, and the darker it is the harder VFR ops are. The hazards, of course, depend on the phase of flight. But there are unique demands during night flight.

Night flying can be just as safe as flying in the daytime, but it isnt, and its not even close.

About 28 percent of fatal and about 15 percent of nonfatal general aviation accidents happen at night, but only about 5 percent of GA flying is done at night.

It may seem that night flying accidents can be chalked up to inexperience, by students or low-time pilots. But in fact, the variety of problems that arise on night flights can bite experienced pilots as well.

Consider the crash of a Piper Cherokee Six piloted by a commercial pilot with instrument and CFI ratings. The night was dark and there was a 1,100-foot overcast. The 2,100-hour pilot pressed on into lowering ceilings, light rain and dropping visibility. Rather than getting on an instrument flight plan, he descended due to the lowering ceiling and eventually struck power lines. The wires damaged the landing gear and he elected to land in a pasture, which resulted in additional damage to the airplane. Fortunately he emerged uninjured.

Preparing to Fly
The preflight weather briefing takes on added significance during a night flight. Carefully check the temperature/dewpoint spread. If the numbers are within a few degrees of each other, it can be a powerful warning that visibility may soon drop. Monitor weather conditions by radio while enroute, since unforecast weather is a big danger on a night cross-country flight.

Be ready to divert to an alternate airport. The winds aloft forecast – which can be upgraded enroute by radio – is a significant piece of weather information. A shift in wind can seriously eat into planned fuel reserves, reducing the range of your airplane. You may have planned for a lighted airport at your destination landing that, with less range, wont be within reach.

Many smaller airports are not open after dark, particularly during the winter, or have no one around to refuel your aircraft. If an inflight diversion becomes urgent, know where you can buy fuel or at least get a room for the night.

Navigating VFR at night is easier than during the day. Cities can be seen from a long way off, and the yellow shapes of a city on the sectional charts roughly match what you see below.

In case of emergency, an airport with a beacon can be seen from far away, except when the airport is in a fairly dense area, where the airport beacon gets mixed in with the rest of the light. Knowing where airports are is more important during night flights because finding an alternative forced landing site is much riskier than during the day.

On a VFR flight its a good idea to plan to keep a string of lighted airports close by your route. Dangerous situations enroute, such as unplanned headwinds or engine problems, can be resolved by an emergency landing at these airports.

One an IFR flight, however, the reassuring lighted fields may have disappeared. IFR routing can lead away from many of the fields that you may need in case of emergency. Changing cloud conditions can darken any favorable moonlight effects you might have been enjoying.

In many ways, night cross-country flights need to be flown with the same kind of discipline used in IFR flying. By applying some of the IFR insights, VFR pilots can prepare themselves for a safe flight under most conditions.

Most important, of course, is to establish your own set of weather minimums. IFR pilots know not to mess around at the published minimums on an approach unless theyre prepared and proficient. They learn to set higher minimums on flights where everything is not optimal. Likewise, VFR pilots flying at night should set some rules that, once established, they will not allow anyone else to influence. These should include reduced visibility, low clouds, extent of precipitation, the intensity of turbulence and strong crosswinds for landing.

Visibility is an important concern, especially when it drops below five or six miles. When you cant see landmarks two or three minutes away, its easy to get lost over unfamiliar terrain. Youre setting the stage for running out of fuel.

Reduced visibility opens up several other dangerous situations as well. Visual illusions can occur, leading to disorientation. Reduced visibility also increases the chance for a midair collision. Two airplanes closing head-on at 160 knots race across 5 miles of visibility in less than 50 seconds.

In poor visibility, flying with your landing light on is a safe practice. You may not see head-on traffic, but they will see you.

Keeping an Out
VFR pilots should give some thought to a personal weather minimum that lets you clear the terrain by 1,500 feet or more, and the cloud bases by 1,000 feet. When you navigate below low ceilings, you will need to know your exact position all along the route.

The safest way to choose a route is to choose one where the alternate airports are twenty minutes or less from any position enroute. If you experience further deterioration of the weather, you may need to head for that alternate.

Pay particular attention to VFR traffic advisories, when the visibilty starts to fade. If youre following roads, stay as high as you can and still see the road. Also remember that other pilots, some heading in the other direction, may also be following the road.

When a cross-country pilot is forced to descend to within 1,500 feet of the ground, he has increased his accident potential 500 percent. Once you have given up safe altitude and adequate manuevering room, two vital safety reserves are lost.

Flying low due to a lowering ceiling can give you a distorted perspective of familiar landmarks. You can also be below the VOR reception range, which wont help navigation much.

Even having an instrument rating is no guarantee that you can pull off a flight safely, especially for pilots who have only a limited amount of time in actual instrument conditions. Remember that an instrument rating is a serious guarantee that you know what you are doing in IFR weather – placing your and your passengers lives on the line. If youre up to it, there is no problem. If you arent proficient in real weather, you could be embarking on a nightmare.

Night flying complicates the equation, because not completing a planned flight may mean spending the night in a hotel – a possibility that some passengers may not have considered, particularly on business flights. But the pressures dont stop there. There are several basic human qualities that combine to generate most pilot errors.

Swallow Your Pride
Pride is difficult to pinpoint, but many accidents seem to start with the pilots vanity and proceed to illogical actions. Perhaps the pilot is trying to show the proverbial right stuff when prudence would dictate backing off.

This kind of situation often develops when two pilots with no defined crew relationship are sitting in the front seats of the same airplane. Without a clear PIC, a situation develops that can result in a really bad pilot error.

Lets say the fuel is lower than planned, and getting home will mean taking unnecessary chances. Do you land and refuel or not? Neither pilot wants to blink first. Each one fails to really consider the consequences of pressing on for fear of appearing inadequate to the other pilot.

Often the worst situation occurs when two flight instructors fly together. Competition can lead to a bad accident. Vanity and pride in the cockpit can become an in-flight hazard. Sometimes a pilot needs to ask himself whether the action he is about to take will add to the safety of the flight or if it will just boost his personal ego.

Another area where pilot errors arise is the pilots assessment of his or her mental and physical fitness for the flight. Stress can build up during the day, leaving you distracted, tense and bothered by little aches and pains. You know your stress level better than anyone else, so dont go for that night flight if youre anywhere near that limit.

In addition, pay particular attention to fatigue and hunger. In Fed-speak, fatigue is a depletion of body energy reserves leading to a below par performance. Tired pilots may think theyre flying reasonably well, but dont realize theyre taking longer to get things done.

Coordination may also be affected, and some operations may be out of sequence. Peripheral vision begins to fade, which narrows the field of view. The pilot attributes control handling problems to external forces such as turbulence, when actually they have been caused by his own slower or incorrect reactions.

All pilots need to guard against drowsiness, because the threat to your safety is very real and very close. The monotonous drone of the engine, the warm cockpit, darkness and the natural tendency to sleep at night can all add up to falling asleep at the controls. If you are flying alone on a cross-country trip, you are especially vulnerable. Even though the aircraft doesnt know whether its day or night, you do, and you are operating in a dark, hostile environment.

It is very important to begin the night flight in a healthy, well-rested condition. A passenger who can carry on a conversation with you is good, and if that passenger is also a pilot its even better. Its also a good idea to keep yourself busy. Make plenty of ATC or weather communications and set up a periodic instrument scanning of flight and engine instruments. Check and recheck your navigation headings, wind drift and check points. Make VOR and ADF cross checks of your position. Do some stretch aerobics in place. Activity, both mental and physical, is the way to overcome solitude and boredom.

Way Past Bedtime
Pilots who keep in mind the dangers of fatigue may find that night flights can involve a rush to get to the destination before it gets too late. Trying to save time in night preflight planning can set up numerous pilot errors that wont show up until later in the flight. If you dont think you have enough time to do a good job of your preflight planning, consider postponing the trip. What will it mean a year from now?

There are ways to save time in planning. Keep your preflight planning materials with you. You can get a considerable amount of the planning done ahead of time rather than waiting for the trip to the airport. If you frequently fly over the same routes, hang on to a written record of your true courses, airports, distances and radio frequencies. Usually these items dont change much and the written record means that much of your planning is already done.

Some veteran pilots get the feeling that they are somehow exempt from proper procedures such as planning, preflights and meeting regulations because they have skill and cunning absent from other pilots. Mark them down as hazards. Other pilots are just fed up with government regulations and show their displeasure by avoiding weather briefings and ATC. One thing needs to be straight: These kinds of pilots forget that they are the ones struggling along in the sky. The other folks are on the ground, safe and sound, ready and waiting to do their jobs.

Take Me Home, Bessie
Some pilots also put too much trust in their airplane, figuring its capabilities will cover up pilot error. Remember that there are no forgiving airplanes. If you dont operate them within their designed ranges for weight, stress, aerodynamic ability and fuel endurance, the flight is headed for serious trouble. There are pilots who push the envelope, especially when it comes to runway requirements and weight and balance. They count on some unknown margin built into the design. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesnt.

Despite the many dangers of night flight, the biggest one continues to be the desire to get the trip done as scheduled. It clouds the judgment during critical situations, yes, but it also colors every decision you make about the intended flight. Some pilots want to go no matter what, and there never seems to be a way to convince them otherwise. They simply must get there. Consider what happens if you never get there.

There are two good ways to help prevent get-thereitis from getting the better of you.

Dont arrange to have someone meet you at the destination airport. Call them, when you get there.

In addition, if the pressure seems to be turned up a notch, stop everything, sit down and have a cup of coffee or a snack. Ask yourself if the trip is worth the risk. Consider what it means in the overall scheme of things if the trip is delayed until morning, next week, or canceled altogether. Have this internal debate away from the airplane and, if possible, away from the airport. If you dont see the airplane, reminding you that you should be going someplace, you might think things out and remain overnight.

Night flying is a skill that needs to be practiced. If you let your night flying skills remain unused, you can be sure your traffic patterns and landings wont please you. If you think you may be rusty, then you are. Get together with your CFI and polish up your night flight skills, including flight by reference to instruments.

Night flight does entail the potential for unique problems that require special piloting skills, over and above those needed for daytime flight. Be ready for them or make sure your airplane goes to bed with the sun.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Seeing is Believing.”
Click here to view “The History of Night.”
Click here to view “Vertigo Effects.”

-by Raymond Leis

Raymond Leis is a CFII and ATP with more than 23,000 hours.


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