A private pilot with about 250 hours flew his personal airplane from an airport in the Southeast to a coastal resort in southern Alabama with his boss in the right seat. The two were going to a business conference, as evidenced by the two sets of golf bags in the back of the high performance single.
The meetings were productive and the networking effective. As for the golf, well, it was probably as frustrating as golf usually is. Once the round was concluded, the pair hopped into a taxi for a quick jaunt to the airport and the three-hour leg home.
When the pilot had originally planned the trip, the schedule called for a 1 p.m. round of golf, and he figured on a departure around 5:30. It was summer time and the days were long, and the pilot figured hed have no problem landing within an hour after sunset. He wasnt legally night current, but considered a night landing a relatively minor event.
The round of golf didnt start until nearly 3 p.m. and took five hours instead of the four the pilot had predicted.
When it was time to head to the airport, the sun was already low in the sky. The pilots dilemma: Confess to the boss and spend another night at the resort or take off and at least find solace in the fact that the air would be cooler.
The Great Debate
Debate in some quarters would add another consideration: Was the pilot instrument rated?
In the aftermath of the JFK Jr. accident last summer, the knee-jerk reaction among many people was that night flight privileges should only be extended to those with an instrument rating. The system, the logic went, had allowed the famous son to blunder into somewhere he had no business being, and the regulations were at fault for allowing it.
In the other camp are those who figure flying is already choked with regulation and that more FAA rules will not protect those who are careless about safety. Some may argue that an instrument rating will encourage marginal pilots to think themselves protected by a magic bubble and take more chances because they have the rating.
But the debate over night flying extends far past the Kennedy accident. There are several arguments in favor of having an instrument rating when flying at night.
When maneuvering over open water or sparsely populated areas, the black hole effect can induce spatial disorientation – the culprit by popular acclaim in the Kennedy accident. But there are other concerns as well.
Clouds are more difficult to see at night, sometimes becoming apparent only when the airplanes strobes bounce back from the inside of the cloud. An unsuspecting pilot can easily get trapped above a solid cloud deck, with an instrument approach the only way to a safe landing.
Getting lost can also be a problem, especially for pilots who use pilotage for navigation. The landmarks so carefully plotted on the sectional chart vanish into the inkiness of the ground.
In many parts of the country, roads, power plants and other checkpoints merge into the blur of light that scatters away from a city. Though primary pilot training includes navigation by VOR, those lessons can be quickly forgotten by fair-weather pilots intent on enjoying a weekly hamburger run to nearby airports.
Even if the weather holds and the pilot makes it to the destination, trouble may await at the airport.
Optical illusions are more pronounced at night, particularly if youre flying into a runway thats much larger or smaller than youre used to. Youll think youre closer to a larger runway than you actually are, perhaps leading to premature descent or even an early flare and a stall. Youll think youre farther away from a smaller runway, which could lead to the ground surprising you.
Knowing instrument approach procedures can provide you with the discipline you need to make safe night landings.
The tendency for most pilots is to fly night visual approaches higher and faster than necessary, leading to runway overruns and loss of control. By following an instrument approach, the pilot may have better discipline on following the proper descent profile and airspeed.
Where Danger Lies
In some respects, however, the supposed danger of night flight is not limited to VFR pilots. The accident rate for night single-pilot IMC flights is astonishingly high.
Both the Nall Report by AOPAs Air Safety Foundation and data from NASAs Aviation Safety Reporting System show that between 10 and 12 percent of reported accidents and incidents occur at night, yet the Nall Report says that nearly half of the instrument approach accidents happen at night. Clearly an instrument rating is no panacea for night landings.
Getting lost at night may be an event whose time has gone. The arrival of inexpensive yet powerful portable GPS units has revolutionized VFR flying. In many respects, a VFR pilot wielding a $700 handheld GPS can navigate more precisely than an instrument pilot using a pair of new VOR receivers.
The FAA tacitly admits the accuracy of even bottom-of-the-market GPS receivers by making the requirements for high-end IFR-certified models stricter only in the sense that they have to monitor the integrity of the GPS signal. A portable unit also monitors the signal, but is not as sophisticated about it.
Inadvertent encounters with the clouds are a tougher nut to crack. Daytime VFR flight requires the pilot to stay clear of the clouds, but it becomes problematic when the clouds are invisible. Falling nighttime temperatures can lead to ground fog. Haze that you can see through in the daylight can become opaque when the sun goes down.
Haze can create an illusion that youre farther from the runway than you are. Fog can make you think youre pitching up. The lights of a highway can mimic runway lights.
Disorientation is a real possibility in those circumstances. It can also appear at times when the spots of light on the ground are similar to the stars. The brain fails to distinguish one from the other, leading to vertigo and a sensation of steeply banking.
The question, then, is whether the threat of disorientation is severe enough to warrant requiring pilots to have an instrument rating.
Until the last round of changes to Part 61, the night training requirements for the private license were minimal: three hours of flight and 10 landings. The latest revision keeps the three-hour, 10 landing requirement and adds that a night flight of at least 100 nm must be made.
In the scope of the current regulations, the night flight requirement is the same as instrument flight. The instrument requirement, however, is given as a last-ditch way out, while the night training enables the newly minted pilot to go anywhere at night.
Although some may see that as a discrepancy that needs to be fixed, its also true that training has to end somewhere. For the past several years, the Nall Report has shown that the accident rate per 100,000 hours flown has been lower for night VMC than for night IMC. In fact, the night VMC accident rate and fatal accident rate are both lower than comparable day rates. That shows that pilots have done a fairly good job of judging the risk of night flying and acting accordingly.
Because most pilots tend to fly far more often during the day, the primary danger appears to be that of the occasional night encounter due to a daytime schedule that doesnt quite work out as planned or a mechanical or weather delay that pushes landing past nightfall.
The safety gains that can be found, then, are not so much regulatory in nature as they are a matter of practice. Practice flying at night. Practice on instruments should that be needed, day or night. Practice making the judgment calls that go hand in hand with building hours in a log book.
It is, of course, impossible to know what would happen to safety statistics if the FAA were to require an instrument rating for night flight. But the statistics are only part of the story. It is certainly possible to fly safely at night without flying on instruments. Judging the wisdom of doing so, however, falls to each pilot to decide, based on that persons competency and tolerance of risk.
In the case of the pilot trying to get his boss home before bedtime, he did ultimately depart late that afternoon. He arrived at the home field after the tower was closed and taxied in without incident.
While some may call it irresponsible behavior, others may call it a perfect example of the pilot-in-commands decision to make a flight he concluded could be made safely, issues regarding the legal aspect of carrying a passenger that night aside.
Although some of the dangers of night flight are different than those that arise during the day, the core issues are the same. The weather, the airplane and the flight need to come together such that the pilots skills are not overwhelmed. Recognizing the dynamics, day or night, is what learning to be a pilot is all about.
And no rating will short-circuit that process.
-by Ken Ibold