Debate: are single engine airplanes safe at night?

Night flying
Is night flying a twin engine game?

The single engine vs. twin debate has raged for decades, with some pilots comforted by another engine and some arguing that twins are actually more dangerous. Sales numbers suggest pilots aren’t worried about engine failures, since high performance singles like the Cirrus SR22 outsell piston twins by a huge margin. But what about night flying? Many pilots still get nervous when contemplating a cross country flight in a single engine airplane. Is it safe?

Advocates of night flying point out that engine failures are a pretty small factor in general aviation accidents, so the number of powerplants attached to the airframe doesn’t matter. VFR flight into IMC and low level stalls are deadly in almost any airplane. Some pilots also argue that new technology like synthetic vision and whole airplane parachutes make the risk of an engine failure at night even lower. Worries about engine failures at night are just a leftover of the early days of aviation.

Many pilots disagree, though. The margins are lower at night and the accident statistics prove it – there are more fatal accidents at night than during the day (when adjusting for hours flown). Running out of fuel is a bad idea during the day; at night, when the forced landing options are more limited, it very well may be fatal. And engines do fail.

What do you think? Is it safe to fly a single engine airplane at night? Under all conditions or only some? Add a comment below.

44 Comments

  • Yes, flying a single at night is safe. However, just like IMC flight, you need to evaluate the additional risks involved, and you need to have outs to mitigate those risks.

    In this case, the night outs relate to mechanical failures. Fly higher, know where your landing spots are along the way, and have a backup radio to key lights on CTAF if you lose electricity. Recognize that higher altitudes likely will impact night vision to some degree, even if it’s only a small degree.

    Of course, if you’re flying IMC in a single at night, then you’ll need your weather-based outs, too.

    • After a long career going from the Aeronca Champ to the 737, it becomes very apparent that all categories of aircraft have their challenges and risks. One thing that is very apparent is that, night flying has it’s own specific risks, whether it be weather or engine failures. The one factor that stands above all others in my opinion is the scenario where “VFR” is allowed at night for non-instrument rated pilots. Early on, it was quite apparent that “night flight” can become “instrument flight” with no changes in flight conditions. As soon as a well lit horizon is no longer available, night flight in fact becomes instrument flying conditions with no apparent horizon available. A pilot who is comfortable with night flight in a congested area will be very UNCOMFORTABLE, if not frightened by the lack of a visible horizon. Night flight over a sparsely lit area becomes absolute instrument conditions when the stars and the ground lights all look the same…in other words, you are in an ink bowl with no discernable “up or down, or left or right”. Having experienced this early on in my career convinced me that in order to commit “Night VFR”, additional hours of training in instrument capability would be the one thing that I would change for pilots in the Private pilot level if they were then allowed to do the “Night VFR” scenario. The one comment that goes along with the engine failure at night….”if a night off airport landing is required, turn on the landing light, if you don’t like what you see, turn it off”……..

  • It seems to me the title of this article is too long — just delete “at night” and start from there.

    And the short answer is, “Single engine aircraft can be safely flown at night (and in the daylight) if operated and maintained properly within their natural and design limitations and if pilots are adequately trained and thoroughly prepared for the real world flight environment that is encountered every day and night and in every flight.”

    The safety issues that arise with any single engine (or multi engine for that matter) operation have to do with maintenance and operation outside the boundaries of good practice, the design limitations of the aircraft, and capabilities and experience of the pilot(s) — arenas where the forces of nature patrol, defend and impose sanctions for violations of such boundaries 24/7, typically by extinguishment and elimination of both the aircraft and occupants without remorse, apology or appeal!

    In my view, a safe flight is characterized by the absence of unmitigated risks across the entire spectrum of flight which includes the aircraft, the pilot and the flight environment. Almost by definition, single engine aircraft have more single points of potential component failure and therefore pose greater risks in some areas than multiengine aircraft, but these risks can often be mitigated through aggressive and thorough monitoring and maintenance policies. Higher skill and experience/confidence levels are required of pilots who fly at night, and any areas of deficiency will quickly become apparent in the real world flight environment, often leading to adverse outcomes.

    If all of the attendant risks are satisfactorily mitigated and the pilot(s) are adequately trained and prepared, then night flight presents no more risk than daylight flights and indeed can be quite pleasurable and enjoyable. But if any of the required preparation is lacking, the deficiencies often lead to grief and mayhem!

  • “Safe” is usually not a binary choice … safety (and its opposite, risk) varies across many risk factors in any given flight. So you cannot answer the question “are single engine aircraft safe for night flight?”. The real question is “how safe?” or “how risky” is night flight in singles compared to twins .. for a specific pilot in a specific aircraft under specific circumstances.

    As the article states, night flying is clearly less safe than daytime VFR in terms of the actual fatal accident rates. For the obvious reason that at night a total loss of power is much more likely to result in a fatality during any forced landing situation. Forced landings can occur for any number of reasons not associated with mechanical failure of a single engine (fuel, weather, pilot incapacitation, loss of situational awareness, etc.), however, and so those causes affect twins as much as singles. All risks are additive and cumulative throughout the flight.

    The argument for singles over twins has entirely to do with the abilities of the pilot and the aircraft to recover from a loss of one engine, primarily during the takeoff and initial climb. Non-proficient pilots, and aircraft that do not have counter-rotating engines (and thus suffer the “critical engine” phenomenon) present a higher risk of a loss of aircraft control when the engine quits in that situation.

    But that condition presents itself for only a matter of seconds each flight. In any event, the loss of an engine in a single engine aircraft during takeoff and initial climb, also all too often results in a fatal loss of control accident. Loss of power in a single engine aircraft compels a forced landing, made worse at night because you may not be able to see and avoid obstacles or rough terrain during the forced landing.

    During cruise flight, descent, and landing, however, having a second engine is clearly superior in virtually all situations whenever an engine quits due to mechanical failure.

  • Maybe the more interesting question is – do YOU fly single engine airplanes at night?

    I personally do, but it does make me think a little.

  • About a third of my flight time is at night. I like night flying because the air is smoother and it is easier to see other traffic. Radio performance and range is better at night due to the way the ionosphere behaves. Route planning and fuel planning are of greater importance when flying at night, but this has trickled down to my daytime planning and I think made me a better pilot.

    I have had an in flight electrical fire at night. Rather, just after sunset. I landed the plane safely at a nearby airport.

    All aspects of flight are dangerous and have risk. Risk can be mitigated but never truly eliminated. I just finished an analysis of accident rates and causes for the types of aircraft I fly and several similar aircraft. Complacency kills.

  • I do an extensive amount of night flying over the Adirondack Region of New York in a 172. I would say that flying one at night is just as safe as any twin. The key is to take extra caution when doing your preflight, and to watch the gauges for any signs of a problem. I also tend to follow roads at night, and “airport hop” as opposed to flying GPS direct. By taking the necessary precautions, night flying in a single is perfectly safe.

    • I agree about the preflight. Don’t try and do it with just a AA flashlight. Do it in a well lit hangar or have a substantial flashlight. The one time I broke an airplane was due to missing something vital because of poor lighting.

  • I used to fly a lot at night when I was younger. At 58 going on 59, I know that my night vision isn’t what it used to be. I’ve promised my wife that if we ever do fly at night, I will file IFR regardless of the weather, treating night as IMC.

    • Hi David,

      Your name sounds familiar to me and I am just curiously writing. Do you happen to live in NY and fly an older Mooney M20c ? If yes, as a former Mooney pilot I think that it is possible that we have something in common.
      Thank you for your reply

      Richard
      9-13-2015

  • I fly singles at night all the time. I would be more worried about spacial disorientation and entering inadvertent IMC at night than an engine failure. It would be wise, however, to stick to populated areas and along lit roads in case you do have a PP failure. It does happen. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

    Furthermore, there is no reason why a multi-e aircraft would be more dangerous than a single unless you are not proficient in engine out procedures and take abnormal risks because of a false heightened sense of security.

    COMM ASEL/AMEL/IFR

  • I do fly at night in a single, but I generally try to avoid it *if I can*, due to increased risks. But return on business is such that it’s often necessary, especially in the winter, for me to fly home at night. I admit that I cringe a little bit and would definitely prefer day–in the summer, my goal is to get OUT of the office with plenty of time to make it home by dark if at all possible. In winter, can’t be done.

    Now then, I do still do it, and I usually fly “as high as I can” depending on wind and other factors. I will even take a hit on fuel and fly into a more stout headwind if it means another 2,000 of altitude. It’s true I draw the line “somewhere” and could mechanically fly higher, but the point is I really want to be 12,500 or more. I use supplemental oxygen. I do so because it’s night–even if stronger headwind at 14,500 than at 8,500.

  • In my several decades of flying, I’ve had only three in-flight engine failures; only one was at night. Obviously, all three events had successful outcomes. Part 23 twins don’t offer Part 25 levels of performance, and their higher stall speeds mean that the pound-for-pound energy at impact will be upwards of 2-1/3 times that of a single. So, that needs to be a part of anyone’s risk-evaluation procedure. If your twin can guarantee you an hour of single-engine flight at required altitudes and weights, it may manifest a reduction of risk. If not, then that second engine may be just enough to get you to the scene of a much more violent crash…

    I think a key metric is this: are you that certain that a daytime outcome would be substantially better? If not, then ignore the darkness – or stop flying altogether.

    • “Only” three engine failures. You are one unlucky guy. Ruling out preventable causes like running out of fuel, few pilots, in a lifetime of flying every experience a single engine failure.

      • I too have had three engine failures. And, I maintain my aircraft to the “Nth” degree. Some pilots think it can’t happen to them. Wrong! It upsets and concerns me when fellow pilots downplay the possibility of engine failure, because I know better.

        I did a lot of night flying in twins. Now that I only fly singles, I almost never fly at night. The danger of engine failure is real. If you are not keeping that possibility in mind continually while flying, then you are not as safe a pilot as you could be and should be.

    • Tom,

      re: your point about relative energy on landing: It depends on what specific twin and what specific single you’re comparing in order to compare kinetic energy at stall speed. And of course that only matters on a very rough field or in a crash, as opposed to an unobstructed landing rollout.

      Based upon a comparison of stall speeds, a Piper PA-34 Seneca Twin has a published stall speed of 61 knots, whereas the single engine version of the same airframe (PA32R) has a stall speed of 57 knots. The four knot differential at the two stall speeds results in only about a 15% increase in kinetic energy, which varies as the square of velocity.

      There are of course twins with higher stall speeds (like the Beech Baron B-58 @ 73-74 knots) and singles with lower stall speeds (like the Cessna 172 at 47 kts) – but they’re entirely different airframes. To get a factor of 2.5X in energy differential you’d be comparing an airplane like the Baron B-58 to the C-172.

      • Hey, Duane!

        What I had in mind was a C-172 vs C-310 type of scenario, as each is typical and representative of its larger class. And an arrival on unimproved terrain.

        -Yars

        • Yars – yup, about the same comparison.

          When I think about relative stall speeds, I remember the old saw about Piper J-3 Cubs.

          “A J-3 can just barely kill you.”

  • I continue to drive at night even though it is probably more dangerous. Why should I give a different consideration to flying at night ?

  • Fifty years ago, I never thought twice about flying over the granite mountains of Vermont at night, always along the Victor airways. Later in life, it got to be flying near an airport, then staying in the pattern just racking up an hours worth of landings. Now, even though I realize that it’s really only the engine out situations we have to worry about, I say, why risk it. I have little enough time left on earth as it is without hastening the departure.

  • I’ve had one engine failure which ended with an airport landing. No damage other than the engine and the subsequent hit on the billfold. Had that been at night it could have been different. Granted the nearest function on the GPS would have led me to the same airport but I am sure the stress level would have been higher. I now live in Colorado near Canon City up against numerous mountain ranges. I fly regularly in a Cardinal RG in the low teens through passes and across ridge lines.
    I do not fly in the mountains at night. Did i on commutes from Indiana to NW Alabama. Sure all the time. Terrain and weather have to be part of the equation when considering the safety of a night flight. Personally I don’t think night flying in a single is as safe but it is acceptably safe for me under the right circumstances. For that matter how safe is a twin at night in the mountains if the twin is limited to the teens and low 20s? IFR vs VFR also a part of the equation.

  • Night flight is a delight when prepared.
    1) Try to fly into airports you are familiar with in the daytime operations.
    2) bring a big flashlight for preflight, I like a nice LED rechargeable worklight.
    3) Have a hat mounted flash light or two plus at least two spares out of the flight bag.
    4) File IFR on even the clearest night at a minimum of 6000′.
    5) shoot the full approach ILS or LPV approach at the home drome

    A favorite departure is from Burke Lakefront after a Cleveland Indians game but extra mental preparation is needed for the “black hole” departing runway 6 over Lake Erie with no lights on the horizon.

  • “Safe” really means the risks are acceptable. While many in our society would like to see zero risk for everything, we all know that ain’t gonna happen. Under specific circumstances night flight (for me) is “safe”. There are risks, some can be mitigated, some partially mitigated, and some can’t be mitigated.

    Sure, having a “well maintained” airplane will partially mitigate potential loss of power, in flight fires, etc. etc. But even the “best” maintenance doesn’t inoculate us and make us immune to mechanical problems. Only 20% of accidents have a mechanical problem or mechanic as the root cause, the rest belong to the pilot. It’s pretty tough to eliminate eroded skills, distractions, external factors, health factors, poor life choices, etc. etc. that affect the pilot caused accident rate. Maybe as we move toward robotics we’ll make some progress? No, WAIT, what’s to prevent the AI system from going to “Alternate Logic” like the Airbus products tend to do in a clinch?

  • Might as well also ask if flying single engine IFR is safe too. Flying at night IS IFR for the most part, but at least if weather is good you can see other airplanes better. I for one would like to see a civilian certification route for flying with night vision goggles. But barring that, if you have enough experience on instruments and get flight following it mitigates enough risk for my comfort level.

    • I disagree. I would rather fly day IFR than night VFR in a single engine airplane.

      A day IFR pilot losing all power will usually break out into some kind of visual conditions and can often point the airplane to a safer place to land and flare the aircraft when approaching the surface. At night, that same pilot has no idea where to point the aircraft and often no idea when to commence the landing flare.

  • Yes,Single-Engine Airplanes are as safe at night as in the Day time.I have 20,000 hours,about 2000 at night.One accident,Aileron cable broke,and that was in the day time.

  • As with all things, it depends on your definition of “safe”. If you mean the absence of risk, no it’s not safe — at any time. But most of the risks can be mitigated by flying higher so that less time is spent out of gliding distance of an airport. Or flying from airport to airport. And avoiding the worst terrain. I’m pretty comfortable at night. About 1/7th of my total time is at night and as a previous commenter noted, there are many advantages to flying after dark: smoother air, less congestion, easier traffic spotting, and so on.

  • It is all about “risk assessment” and how are you going to handle the extra risk of reduced terrain visibility when flying over black holes, such as open water or rural areas. If you have height and can follow lit roads and/or airport hop you have a risk mitigation plan, as long as you follow it.
    The other issue is the equipment go/no-go list. I once refused to pilot a night flight in a C172 with freezing levels around ground level when during external checks the pitot heater was found to have packed up. A rookie pilot who was due to fly with me could not get the reason why, as the sky was clear. To add to the risk the plane had been outside all day and we had to de-ice the airframe from a layer of frost, which had delayed the flight into official night. Being an engineer and a former airforce reserve ground instructor, I had read a few accident reports in my time to make me think before I leapt into the sky.

  • I have always felt that single engine night cross country should require an instrument rating….entering IMC conditions at night can occur suddenly…..

  • I enjoy flying at night. All but 2 hours of my logged PIC time over the 42+ years I’ve been flying is in singles, so multi-engine isn’t an option. In my younger, foolisher years I flew IFR in IMC and over the mountains at night. I still file IFR at night, but I try to avoid IMC at night, and I won’t fly over the mountains at night. I do careful preflights, I carry extra flashlights, I have had Nulites added to several flight instruments, I have a mic light on my headset, and I wear a pair of trifocals which match the segments of my sunglasses. I have HID landing and taxi lights. I carry a handheld VHF and a handheld GPS to back up the panel stuff. I have a lighted kneeboard. I’ve flown enough at night with my iPad to know the necessary settings.

    None of that answers the question, “Is it safe to fly a single engine airplane at night?” But taking into account all those things, it’s safe enough for me to feel comfortable flying at night with people aboard whom I care about. The only way to eliminate all risk of flying, day or night, is to not fly, and for me, that’s an unacceptable alternative.

    Cary

  • I have flown many flights in a single engine aircraft in the South West skies at night. I find the turbulence almost disappears after the sun goes down and the flight is more enjoyable for my passengers and myself. As a pilot over 50 years old I use Oxygen above 5 thousand feet and down to touch down. When operating in unfamiliar areas instrument procedures are mandatory even in VFR conditions. In the midwest some of my most interesting flights took pace at night with isolated CB on my route.

  • Before we start the conversation of night verses day time forced landings I would add another dimension. Some say that they won’t fly over the lake and instead travel around it because a forced landing would be difficult. I don’t think it really matters much. I would submit that very few pilots are prepared for a forced landing under ideal circumstances. This is not so much an opinion as it is an observation. As an instructor I have for years watched countless pilots struggle, most often unsuccessfully, to get their airplane on the ground at their home airport after I pull an engine. I doubt that the time of day plays much of a role on the outcome of an engine failure.

  • Personally, I treat night flying as a full blown IFR flying, and until I finish my instrument training I will stay day-VFR and alive 🙂

    • Good choice, although many of the risk factors of flying at night are also present during daytime flight, e.g., fuel, weather, maintenance, terrain, etc.

      Risk awareness, assessment and evaluation are just as important in daylight as night, and the mitigation strategies need to be carefully considered and in place before leaving the ground on any flight. Every pilot’s most important flight, the one that you need to bring to bear all your accumulated experience and expertise and effort, is the next one, regardless of the number of hours in your logbook, the number of ratings on your certificate or the type of aircraft you’re flying!

  • As many above have said, I flew a lot of single engine night flights when I was younger, and thought nothing of it. Now that I am retired, I have little need to fly at night and frankly avoid it. Ironically, I think night flying has become a bit safer with the addition of engine analyzers, nearest airport features on the GPS, and now synthetic vision.

  • As a student pilot in the 70s, night solo was no big deal. My CFI even let me fly a night solo cross country. Once licensed, I thought nothing of it. Today, I would be more cautious. The point is moot, as I am now under the Sport Pilot rules.

  • I see it this way:

    Engine failure during day = high probability of gliding to a safe outcome

    Engine failure at night = high probability of gliding to a bad outcome

    In general, I view night flying in single as exponentially greater risk vs. day time should the engine go quiet.

  • I have instructed and examined many pilots over the years, ppl and CPL alike.
    All pillots will agree that the gist of pilot training zeroes down to emergences and a little of handling capability because no matter how good a pilot might be at handling their craft, they are not safe if they can not handle an emergency and that’s why all GFTs will focus on emergency handling capabilities, engine failure being one of the most critical emergencies a pilot should be able to safely handle and I have had my fair share of engine failures, two in the night but thank God I was in the vicinity of the aerodrome in both cases.
    One would therefore have to bare quite some bovine insolence yo believe single engine cross country flying is safe with neither view of terrain or obstacles below.
    If there is nothing to prove, and surely since you have a license I would like to believe there is nothing to prove and so I personally say no to S.E night flying.

  • I am disabled and have not logged any airtime in almost 15 years.But before that I was certified twin pilot.So I will throw in my 2 cents here.flying any A/C at night is more a function of good instrument training then the number of engines hung on the wing.But having said that with todays single engine A/C has come a new era of engine power and dependability that almost renders this discussion moot.But there is that almost that will at some point in a pilots flying career will create an emergency engine event.Questions for a single engine pilot to ask himself BEFORE attempting a night flight.
    1.Am I qualified to fly at night? I.E. VFR or IFR rated.Weather is a fickle mistress to court.Particularly for VFR only.
    2.How current is my engine and how old is it?
    3.How many air hours do I have in night conditions if any?
    4.How many miles will I be flying?[local,regional or extended x country.]
    5.Will I be flying alone and if not will there be another qualified pilot with me or just a passenger?

    The whole point is for a single engine pilot flying at night is just how well qualified is your A/C and you to be flying at night? and that goes for twin pilots as well.

    You have the license and ultimately you have the responsibility for your own and other people live in your A/C and on the ground.

  • This would probably depend on the area of the U.S. that you’re flying. In Texas, there are so many Farm-to-Market roads, and highways, to allow for a safe emergency landing at night that you’d pretty much be in good shape, given any altitude when the failure occurred.

  • ASSUMING that the plane is well maintained and that the pilot is well trained, etc, has spare batteries, flashlights, knows the equipment, etc, etc, etc, the only thing left, and IMO the crux of the issue is the rare scenario of an engine out and the necessity for an off airport landing in a dark area that you can’t see.

    Obviously this is a tough situation that has been discussed before in some detail. My question is does anyone have any experience with synthetic vision – either panel mounted or even on Foreflight or other ipad apps. Do you think that would be helpful in this situation (i.e. engine out at night, possibly over “hostile” terrain like in the mountainous southwest)? Or more of a gimmick and it’s still basically a crapshoot as to whether one would survive a forced off airport landing without seeing the terrain?

  • I have had one engine out in my flying career and I had just under 300 hours. I had my girlfriend and my bandmate in a retractable gear Cardinal and lost the engine after just clearing the last mountain. We were still in the foothills headed towards Charlotte at 1 a.m. and luckily made it to a highway but was unfortunate enough to have to fly under an overpass that I couldn’t see in the dark. I did clip a telephone wire and put a ding in the wing but that was the only damage. I pulled up an exit ramp and after cleaning our pants out, I swore that I would never fly over mountains at night or fly IMC at night in a single engine ever again. I fly single engines in the flatlands at night regularly, whether it is for personal reasons or with students. But my take on the single engine night debate is single engine at night is fine just know what is below you. If you can’t land there safely during the day, it sure won’t be pretty at night!

  • “Early on, it was quite apparent that “night flight” can become “instrument flight” with no changes in flight conditions. As soon as a well lit horizon is no longer available, night flight in fact becomes instrument flying conditions with no apparent horizon available.” The airfield that I fly from normally has a southerly wind. Last time I went out to do some night T & G’s the wind was from the North. The local town is south of the airfield, to the North is a large amount of East Texas with no habitation. Very rapidly became IFR after T/O. A definite lesson!

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