Night flying refresher

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The return to standard time, cooler temperatures, and shorter days may have you dreading the winter flying season, and already longing for spring. But as a glass-half-full type, now is a great opportunity to enjoy the many pleasures of night flying at a more civilized hour. Calmer air, spectacular views and less traffic are just a few of advantages we encounter at night. So instead of an excuse, let’s use the early sunset as a reason to get caught up on some helpful night flying tips and reminders.

Unless you’re flying freight for a living, night flying typically comprises a very small percentage of our total flying. And naturally, because it’s not something we do on a regular basis, we lack proficiency and confidence. And because so many aspects of flying at night are different from our routine daytime flying, it’s not something we should just dive in to each fall without a plan. Everything from equipment and preparation, to cockpit organization and physiology require additional consideration when it comes to night flying.

The rules

To a review the rules governing night flying, in order to be current to carry a passenger, you must have completed at least three takeoffs and landings in the preceding 90 days in the same class of airplane (i.e. single engine). The regulation is specific in that the landings must be to a full stop and have occurred during the period of one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise.

Position (navigation lights) must be illuminated between the hours of sunset to sunrise. This includes anytime the aircraft is running or even being moved. For the purposes of logging night experience, this is done while flying after the end of evening twilight and before morning twilight begins. In other words, when it’s dark.

You’re required to carry at least a 45-minute fuel reserve at night, but always carry an hour. There’s nothing that can spoil a flight quicker than stressing over a fuel situation or worse.

The common-sense interpretation is that when it’s dark, ensure you’re landing current and turn on your lights. Carry extra fuel. And just because you may legally fly solo to obtain your landing currency, that doesn’t make it wise. A good rule of thumb, if you’re beyond currency, is to engage a flight instructor to help regain those skills and perhaps even use the opportunity to earn a fresh flight review endorsement.

Preflight planning

When evaluating and selecting altitudes and routes for a night flight, bear in mind that your options for emergency, off-airport landings are significantly limited. As a result, you may consider less direct routing in favor of overlying airports or lighted highways. While landing on a road may not sound ideal, it’s always a better than landing blind. Divided highways often have grassy medians that may be suitable for landing, but if you have to opt for a roadway, land in the same direction as vehicle traffic.

It goes without saying that altitude selection should keep you well clear of all obstructions, but night flying is less forgiving and doesn’t always afford the option to see and avoid. Higher altitudes will not only provide additional obstruction clearance, but also more options for an emergency landing site if it becomes necessary.

Your eyes will need adequate time to adjust to night fling conditions. Most pilots can adjust to night vision within about 20 minutes, but it could take as long as 30. Needless to say, be resolute in protecting and preserving your night vision once established. And the holder we get, the longer it takes.

You can use some of that night vision adaptive time to check in with the FBOs you intend to use. Beware that published hours for line service often lie. It’s best to get first-hand, reliable information as to what services you’ll have access to at your destination. The Chart Supplement (formerly A/FD) is also filled with helpful preflight planning information such as airport lighting systems, frequencies, tower operating hours and more.

Equipment

If you’re not accustom to checking exterior lighting on your aircraft for daytime flying, it’s imperative for a night flight. And don’t forget about the interior lighting. The time to discover instrument backlights not functioning is BEFORE it gets dark so you don’t have to immediately go for the flashlight.

At least one good flashlight or headlamp is a must for your night flying activity. But even that will do you no good if you can’t find it when it’s needed. Ensure your equipment is operational, have access to fresh batteries if necessary, and organize your cockpit so you can find your equipment in the dark.

If you’re faced with an unplanned, off-airport landing situation, help may not be as readily available. You’ll be harder to locate and ground travel is more treacherous so consider building a basic survival kit.

Executing the night flight

A departure plan is critical in a night flying situation with terrain and other obstacles more difficult to avoid visually. You may consider consulting instrument procedures for minimum safe altitudes and potential routing to your en-route altitude or even a visual climb over the airport until you’ve reached a comfortable cruising altitude.

If you’re within radar coverage, VFR flight following an be helpful for traffic and terrain avoidance, but is only provided on a workload permitting basis. Be deliberate in scanning for traffic. Move the eyes more slowly when flying at night and use the off-center scan technique. To determine relative aircraft position, recall airplane position lights are arranged similar to those of boats and ships with a red light on the left wingtip, a green light on the right, and a white light on the tail.

Landing lights are not only useful for taxi, takeoffs, and landings, but enhance your ability to be seen at night by other pilots. Pilots are encouraged to turn on their landing lights when operating within 10 miles of an airport and below 10,000 feet.

You’ll be able to identify most airports by rotating beacons. The beacon rotates at a constant speed producing a series of flashes at regular intervals. Lighted civilian land airport beacons consist of a white and green light. Steady-burning red lights are used to mark obstructions on or near airports and sometimes to supplement flashing lights on other obstructions. High-intensity, flashing white lights are used to mark some supporting structures of overhead transmission lines and are also used to identify tall structures, such as telecommunication towers.

Airport lighting

While beacons are present at most airports, the presence of Runway End Identifier Lights (REILs) consisting of sequenced flashing lights marking the runway threshold are also easily identifiable.

Runway edge lights are white except yellow replaces white on the last 2,000 feet of half the runway length to provide a visual cue of distance remaining. Runway edge lights can have differing brightness levels of high, medium and low intensity. For pilot control of these systems, key the mic on the appropriate frequency seven times for high intensity, five times for medium, and three for low intensity. At towered airports, you may request a change in intensity on the tower frequency.

End of runway lights are will show green as you approach the runway and red as you near the end. Taxiway edge lights are blue and larger airports may have in-ground centerline lighting illuminating the turn-offs.

Beware of night illusions

There are a variety of illusions that you may experience at night. They are legitimate phenomena that can be distracting and misleading so not only does it help to anticipate when these illusions may occur, but you must also employ a strategy to combat the illusion.

Moonless nights, or anytime horizon identification becomes difficult, makes you more susceptible to spatial disorientation similar to flying into IMC conditions. Further, unexpected cloud layers are notoriously difficult to detect at night. As you analyze weather conditions and even surrounding terrain and lights at your airports of intended use, anticipate situations when you will need to rely more heavily on your flight instruments and plan to use a more routine and frequent instrument scan on your night flights.

Many pilots report bouts of vertigo that can be caused by anti-collision light systems. If you experience symptoms, don’t hesitate to turn those lights off. Featureless terrain may create a black hole effect in which you may perceive the aircraft at a higher altitude than it actually is. Bright runway lights can create of the illusion of less distance to the runway. Relying on an instrument glideslope or visual glideslope indicators are an effective tool for flying appropriate glide paths to landing.

As a word of caution, obstruction clearance on the basis of VASI or PAPI systems is only assured four miles from the runway threshold, while those same lighting systems may be visible nearly 20 miles from the runway.

Night landings

Fly toward the airport until the runway is identified and you can set up for a normal traffic pattern. Be patient as distance may be deceptive at night due. Reactivate the runway lighting systems if pilot controlled to ensure they will not go dark during your pattern and landing. Rely on the PAPI or VASI during your final approach. The round out should begin when the landing light reflects on the runway and tire marks are visible.

Beware of potential wildlife at airports. A low pass over the runway may be in order if you expect there could be something on the runway. Don’t let the desire to get parked and on your way be a distraction. Taxi at a slow pace so that you have adequate time to see taxiway turns or other ground obstructions lurking in the dark like fences, vehicles or other airplanes that aren’t illuminated.

Once parked, you no longer have to be concerned with preserving that night vision so use your brightest flashlight to complete a thorough postflight inspection inside and out. Ensure the airplane is secure and electric is off. If you filed a flight plan, make that call to cancel.

Enjoy the night!

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It was his first airplane trip at age seven that made Eric decide to become a pilot. "While boarding the airplane, a flight attendant noticed my interest in the flight deck and urged me to go talk to the pilot. I give a lot of credit to that pilot for my career choice." He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and went on to an airline career. Eric now heads Sporty’s flight school and directs the University of Cincinnati’s Professional Pilot Training Program. In addition, Eric serves as a Captain in Sporty’s corporate flight department.