7 Tips for Flying at Night

By Jason Blair, ATP, CFI-I, MEI-I, FAA Designated Pilot Examiner | October 2015

This time of year, as sunset comes earlier with each passing day, the prospect of flying at night increases significantly. But is flying at night something to be feared? Night flying can be something that pilots avoid due to a perceived higher level of danger. Some places (Canada and the Bahamas are a couple of examples) don't even allow pilots who are not instrument rated to fly at night without being on an instrument flight plan. While it is true that there is an added level of risk, and options in an emergency become more limited at night, if you are going to do some night flying, there are a few things that can minimize the risk. When done properly, and as safely as possible, flying at night can result in some of the most beautiful moments a pilot will ever experience. I promise that the first time you see a shooting star go by as you fly during a full moon will be a moment you never forget.

Plan for Emergencies
One of the concerns pilots have about flying at night is what would happen in case of an engine failure. It’s harder to find a good landing spot in the dark. In some cases, it’s next to impossible to see the details of what appears to be an inviting open space. Even what appears to be a flat farmer’s field might be bumpy, have irrigation systems, power lines, or even, in reality, be a lake! Use good judgment when thinking about emergency options. There is no doubt that this decision gets easier (and safer) in a full moon without any clouds than on a night with cloud cover that darkens everything below.

Appropriate Lighting
Many aircraft do not have great panel lighting (although newer glass panel aircraft do have some fantastic instrument lighting). It is always a great idea to have a good red and white flashlight with you. A second light is also a really good idea. These can be used in the cockpit to read poorly lighted instruments, find a chart in the back seat, or before and after a flight for pre- or post-flight inspections. Before the flight, make sure your batteries aren’t dead. An old aviation joke asks “What does a pilot use a flashlight for? The answer, “To hold dead batteries.”

Extra Fuel The FAA only requires a 30-minute fuel reserve during the day, but a 45-minute reserve at night for any cross-country flight. An hour is a better minimum to plan. In fact, I personally tend to go with a “half-tank” minimum for night flights. As an example, if I have 4.5 hours of fuel on board, I normally wouldn’t plan any legs longer than 2.5 hours.

At night, fewer airports are open for fuel services and it may be necessary to find an alternate airport if weather becomes an issue. By having a greater fuel reserve when it is dark and vision is more limited, you’re able to consider more backup options.

A Handheld Radio
One key factor to successfully land at many airports after dark is the ability to turn the lights on. Unless you happen to be flying an aircraft with enough fuel to fly until daylight, a radio or an alternator failure could leave you in the position of being unable to turn airport lights on for landing. Have a handheld, backup radio with you for any night flights. Again, make sure new or fully charged batteries are in the device.

Visual Illusions
Your eyes don't work as well at night as during the day. If they did, you could see in the dark, but since you can't, there are a couple of things you need to think about. Consider how bright lights degrade your vision prior to flight. Think about how limited your view of terrain will be. And be aware of visual illusions that may affect your flight performance. Up- or down-sloping runways can make you think you’re higher or lower on an approach than you actually are. It is also common for pilots to flare too high at night. Sometimes, they perceive the runway lights as the runway surface and flare early. The extra descent rate can result in some bumpy landings.

If you aren't familiar with these illusions, this is a great opportunity to call up a local instructor for a bit of brush up on your night flying skills and to seek out and learn more about some of these potential night flying illusions.

Higher Altitudes or Even IFR
At a minimum, I recommend you fly at a greater altitude. Avoid flying at altitudes where hypoxia symptoms will become a problem, but a flight you might normally make at 2000' AGL could be made safer by flying 4000, 6000 or even 8000' AGL, not just to avoid unseen obstacles but to give yourself more time to think in an emergency. It is not a bad practice to only fly IFR at night. Visual references are limited compared to day flight, especially in mountainous or desert terrain, or over large bodies of water, where few visual references exist anyway. You don’t have to think any further than the John F. Kennedy Jr. tragedy to see the danger in this. Of course, if you are going to fly IFR at night, it also means you need to be current as an IFR pilot.

Take an Afternoon Nap
It almost goes without saying, but it is many times not considered: Pilots are often more tired at night because they have been up all day prior to completing a flight after dark.

Fatigue is a factor in many accidents, and certainly it can minimize a pilot’s decision-making abilities and response time. To avoid the potential dangers of fatigue for a night flight, a simple afternoon nap can help you be refreshed and on top of your game. Plus, who doesn’t want a good excuse for an afternoon nap?

Night flying does include some added risk, but if you are going to do it, some of the risks can be minimized. It is ultimately up to you to decide if the added risk is worth the reward (either in terms of travel needs or just scenic potential). Next time you are considering a night flight either locally or cross-country, consider some of these tips to mitigate the risks.

What are your important considerations for flying at night? Email Avemco at PIREP@Avemco.com.

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Jason Blair is an active single and multi-engine instructor and FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with 4,900 hours total time and 2,850 hours instruction given. In his role as Examiner, over 800 pilot certificates have been issued. He serves on several FAA/Industry aviation committees and is the past Executive Director of the National Association of Flight Instructors. He also consults on aviation training and regulatory efforts for the general aviation industry.

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