I really enjoy night flying. It tends to be the smoothest time to fly. Over urban areas like Los Angeles, it’s amazing what you can see at night, and in general there are fewer people flying at night. However, night flying comes with some additional challenges. It is for this reason that the FAA has a specific night flying requirement for private pilot candidates and that the currency requirements for night flying are separate from flying during the day. Being able to fly at night is one thing that differentiates private pilots from sport pilots.
What is night flight? The FAR defines night as “the time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight, as published in the American Air Almanac, converted to local time.” You can look up the definition of civil twilight and find the times published online, but for Los Angeles, 30 minutes after sunset is a good approximation.
However, that definition is not the only definition of night with which pilots need to be familiar.
14 CFR 91.209 says that position (a.k.a. navigation) lights are required between sunset and sunrise.
Probably most importantly to pilots is the issue of night currency. 14 CFR 61.57 says “no person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise, unless within the preceding 90 days that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise”.
Everything at night seems to take longer. This starts with preflight. If you are preflighting at night, you’ll need a flashlight or headlamp to look into all the nooks and crannies that are normally visible to you during the day. You also need to exercise extra caution to avoid running into parts of the airplane or tripping over tie down chains.
Also remember to check the operation of all airplane lights during your preflight. Beacons or strobes and position lights are required equipment and an operational landing light I consider a near requirement, even if it may not be legally required (depending on whether the flight is “for hire”). As a result, I normally check the lights near the beginning of my preflight.
You’ll find that the taxi and landing lights on most airplanes are much less effective than the headlights on your car and the areas around airports less well lit than your average neighborhood. As a result, it can be difficult to find your way in the dark on the ground. The best solution is to make sure you never lose sight of taxi lines while taxiing, that you pay extra attention to the location of your wingtip relative to other obstacles and airplanes, and that you spend extra time studying taxi diagrams to know where you are headed. At some smaller airports, very few directional and informational signs are lighted. You should also be familiar with the difference between blue lights (edge) and green lights (centerline) when taxiing. During run-up, you may need a powerful flashlight in order to see control surface movement. It is also more difficult to detect accidental movement (rolling) during startup and runup
Use of Lights
We use lights to both see, and be seen. Landing or taxi lights allow us to see taxi lines, runways, and possibly obstructions or other aircraft. Strobes, beacons, and position lights allow other aircraft to more easily see us.
Beacons and position lights should be on whenever the airplane power is on at night. Strobes are recommended to only be used in the air, as their use on the ground can easily blind other pilots (and sometimes you). I turn them on just as I get ready for takeoff and as soon as I am clear of the runway after landing.
It’s important that you understand the configuration of position lights, so you can easily identify whether another aircraft is heading towards you or away from you. My easy way of remembering is “Red on the Right is WRONG”; in other words, if you see an airplane and the red light is on the right and green on the left, it is heading towards you.
In some airplanes, it is best to use a taxi light only on the ground and use the landing light for takeoff and landing. In other planes, there is only one light that serves both purposes. In still others, using both lights may be appropriate. If your airplane is equipped with traditional filament bulbs, turning taxi or landing lights off during cruise may extend their life and increase the likelihood they are operational when you need them most (just remember to turn them back on as you configure for landing). If your airplane is equipped with LED or HID lights that operate without a filament, then use of those lights during all phases of flight can make you more visible to other aircraft. When operating with taxi or landing lights on the ground, try to be aware of whether they might blind another pilot. If I’m approaching an airplane that is in the runup area, I’ll turn them off momentarily when they would otherwise illuminate the other plane.
Clouds in your path can be nearly impossible to see until they suddenly obscure your view of the ground. Pay extra attention to cloud portions of the forecast and METARS and lights on the horizon and ground.
On dark nights, terrain can also be almost impossible to see. Make sure you plan your route and waypoints to ensure plenty of terrain and obstacle clearance. The same goes for obstacles and terrain on approach to landing. Appropriate use of PAPI or VASI will increase safety.
Many airports have lights that can be set at different levels. At towered airports, you can ask for the lights to be turned up or down. At non-towered airports, the lights are sometimes pilot controllable. Simply key the mic 3, 5, or 7 times (for low, medium, or high). It is often hard to see a runway at night if you are approaching from anything but the end of the runway; in these cases, it is easiest to spot the beacon from some distance away.
Judging your height above the runway can be difficult at night. Your peripheral vision gives you less information in a dark environment. If you are having difficulty judging height, I suggest a technique used by seaplane pilots landing on a mirror-like lake (a so called glassy water landing). Set up the airplane for a gentle descent (say 100fpm, which is only 1.5fps) and fly the airplane onto the runway in a nose high attitude. This assumes that appropriate airspeed is maintained during this descent to avoid a stall and that there is sufficient runway to accomodate a longer landing and rollout.
The portions of the eye most sensitive to light are different than needed for best accuity during the day. Night vision is easily compromised by short exposure to relatively bright lights. Attempt to use your off-center vision for the best sensitivity and avoid exposure to bright lights during preflight and flight. While many people advocate the use of red lights to help preserve night vision, I find the loss of color visibility (e.g. being unable to read charts well) to outweigh the advantages.
At a minimum, you need a flashlight. I personally carry two or three flashlights, a headlight, and extra batteries, to ensure I never find myself in the dark. For preflight and moving the plane in and out of it’s parking spot, a bright light is useful. For the cockpit, a less bright or dimmable light is preferred, in order to help preserve night vision. I prefer LED lights that use standard AA or AAA batteries, for the ease of finding replacement batteries and the long life and durability.
For most use in the cockpit, a headlamp allows you to keep your hands free. I use a small, not overly bright model – the Gizmo. It’s cheap, dimmable, reasonably light, and runs on AAA batteries. I wish it remembered the dimmed brightness when you turn it back on, but that’s a nit.
The flashlight I use most is a Princeton Tec LED light that runs om 4 AAA batteries. (the exact one I have is no longer made). I often go more than a year between changing batteries (and only change them out of an abundance of caution). It is bright enough for preflight, but not so bright as to blind me in the cockpit. It’s small and light enough that I can hold it in my teeth if I’m filling out a log book, writing down a clearance, or reading a chart.
I also have a very small Gerber flashlight, which runs on a single AA battery. It isn’t very bright, but is nice for lighting an instrument or chart in the cockpit and does allow you to choose red if you prefer that.
Lastly, I carry my extra AA and AAA batteries in a glow in the dark carrier in my flight bag. I carry enough batteries to replace the batteries in my handheld radio or several of my flashlights.
Inside the airplane, lighting capability varies greatly. At the least, become familiar with all the switches, dimmers, and location of various lights in the airplane you plan to fly and keep your flashlight handy. Dim your instrument panel or cabin lights to the lowest level that allows you to properly see.
During the winter, we can do night pattern work at EMT. However, with the recommendation against pattern work at EMT from 8pm – 8am, we have to go to POC (no pattern work after 10pm) or CNO (no specific restriction) as the days get longer. In the summer, expect to get practice in non-tower communications as well as EMT tower closes at 8PM and the others at 9PM (as of 2015)
After students have some time with night flight locally, our next night flight is the night dual cross country. Two night flights are usually enough to get the required 3 hours of night flight, 10 full stop night landings, and the night cross country requirement.