Night flying: out of our element

Night flights are often some of the best a general aviation pilot can experience: traffic is light, controllers offer more shortcuts and the winds are usually calmer. Besides those practical matters, the view out the window is nothing short of spectacular, as even well-known sights take on a whole new look after sunset.

But as much as we romanticize night flight, it’s not something most pilots do very often. I’m a perfect example: in my 2000+ hours of flying (a pretty good mix of fun and transportation flying), less than 15% of it has been in the dark. Except for freight dogs, my guess is most GA pilots are in the same boat. Night flying is foreign territory.

The NTSB reports back this up. The overall accident rate is worse at night, whether in VMC or IMC, and night crashes are significantly more likely to be fatal. The causes are familiar. While many pilots worry about flying behind a single piston engine after dark, the statistics show that true mechanical failures are rare at night, just as they are during the day. As usual, the most likely suspect is the person in the left seat. Night flying, like instrument flying, demands the best from us.

With that in mind, let’s consider some of the most important issues we must confront to stay safe in the dark.

Terrain

Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) is obviously a concern during the day as well as the night, but it’s a perfect example of how margins get eroded at night. That mountain or tower that seems so obvious during the day can quickly disappear into the black after sunset, even with appropriate lighting. Avoiding those means maintaining good situational awareness, for sure. It also means never descending to a lower altitude unless you’re absolutely positive of your position–altitude is your friend at night.

Garmin terrain alert
Any pilot can fly with terrain and obstacle alerts – even on an iPad.

These days, there’s also no excuse for flying without a terrain alerting system, whether it’s a fancy TAWS system in the panel or a $75 iPad app. These are much more than eye candy. Even the most basic terrain system is a major safety enhancement, and most include obstacles too. Just make sure you know how to use these terrain alerting features, lest they lull you into a false sense of security.

That terrain map also doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility to plan your flight. A classic trap involves VFR descents in mountainous terrain: the pilot sees the destination airport from cruise altitude and starts down, but suddenly loses sight of the airport. Before the pilot realizes what is blocking the airport, the flight ends in tragedy as the airplane crashes into the ridge that was hiding in the dark. At night, it’s not over until the airplane is in the hangar.

At the very least, a minor diversion to keep you over a highway instead of high terrain is probably a good tradeoff. But the best answer for VFR pilots is to fly like you’re IFR. That certainly doesn’t mean you should fly in clouds or file an IFR flight plan, but it does mean you can learn from the published IFR procedures. Study obstacle departure procedures for your area or look up the minimum en route altitudes (MEAs) or the  Off Route Obstruction Clearance Altitude (OROCA) for your route. These altitudes and routes are developed after careful study, and if the instrument approach procedure says “no circling northwest at night,” there’s probably a very good reason for it.

Again, technology makes it easier to do this. With flight planning websites and apps, even VFR pilots can view instrument charts for no additional charge, so there’s no reason not to include them in your pre-flight planning. Spend an hour with a flight instructor to make sure you know what you’re looking at.

Eventually you have to give up that precious altitude, and it’s best not to guess. Plan your vertical profile as carefully as you plan your flight plan route, including a top of descent point. You can even use your GPS’s VNAV feature to fly a pre-determined descent that you know is safe. On approach, you might also consider flying an ILS glideslope if you’re VFR. It can be a nice double-check for your visual approach, but be sure to practice this in daylight before you try it out for real. ILS or not, do fly the VASI and do not accept any deviations below red over white.

For instrument pilots, the procedures are more rigid and the decisions are fewer, but that’s a good thing. That’s part of the safety you add by flying in the system. However, there are two moments when even pilots on an IFR flight plan are on their own: when departing uncontrolled airports and again at the end of an instrument approach.

In the first scenario, paranoia is warranted: you are on your own for terrain avoidance until that controller wraps you in the warm embrace of ATC services (specifically, a vector; “radar contact” is not enough). Do not take off and turn directly to your first fix unless you know you will clear all obstructions. The smart move is to fly the published obstacle departure procedure (if one exists) or even circle over the airport until you reach a safe altitude. While ATC should mention these departure procedures in your clearance if you are required to fly them, they still may be worth flying even if they are omitted.

Final approach on the ILS
Are you safe to descend below MDA? Best do some research to make sure.

On approach, route and altitude is described in exquisite detail–until, somewhat inexplicably, you get close to the ground. When you hit minimums and see the runway, all you have to do is descend and land, right? Maybe not. A critical detail to consider is the type of approach minimums for the one you’re flying: a Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA) on a non-precision approach or a Decision Altitude (DA) on a precision approach. If you look up at DA and see the lights, land. But MDA is not as clear cut. As we’ve discussed before, advisory GPS glideslopes do not guarantee obstruction clearance below MDA, but it can be tempting to keep flying that magenta line. Here’s another instance where it pays to have a plan–getting from MDA to the runway safely may mean leveling off for quite some time.

One final consideration for IFR pilots. Night circling approaches have a reputation for being a death trap, and it’s mostly deserved. Unless you’re in flat terrain and you know the airport extremely well, there’s simply no reason to circle at night. For almost every piston airplane, it’s far better to land with a tailwind than to circle.

Spatial Disorientation

Another concern after sunset is losing sight of the horizon and losing control of the airplane. The answer is to file IFR if you’re rated, and to invest in good instrument training even if you’re not. A few hours under the hood can give you more confidence in your instruments and make your night flying safer. Practice certainly makes a difference, and that means more than just three takeoffs and landings.

Conditions also play a big role, none bigger than the moon. While it might seem overkill, checking the phase of the moon during preflight is 90 seconds well spent. The difference between a full moon and a new moon is dramatic–and worth experiencing with another pilot in the right seat if you haven’t seen it. Besides the phase of the moon, consider the effect of weather. While everyone worries about low clouds, even a 25,000 ft. overcast can block the moon and make an otherwise pleasant night challenging.

route over lake michigan
That overwater route may be shorter, but will there be any horizon over the lake?

Route of flight and destination airport can also increase the risk, whether VFR or IFR. Consider the well-known case of John F. Kennedy, Jr., who crashed into Rhode Island Sound trying to get to Martha’s Vineyard. While much was made of the marginal visibility that night, the most significant risk factor was certainly the overwater leg of the flight. At night, over open water, the visual clues are almost zero.

It’s not just open water, either. I fly into Cincinnati Lunken Airport (LUK) quite a bit, and on final approach for runway 21L it’s as if you’re in a black hole. While there’s no water, the unpopulated farmland makes it nearly impossible to judge airplane height visually.

So once again consider that route. Just as it builds in some margins for avoiding terrain, flying over a populated area or well-lit highway–even if it’s a little out of the way–can decrease the chances of spatial disorientation.

One final subject always comes up when pilots talk about spatial disorientation at night: the autopilot. In my opinion, there’s little to debate. While “real men” may hand fly the airplane at night, smart ones who want to stay alive use the autopilot. Certainly, an autopilot should not be used as a crutch or an excuse for poor stick and rudder skills. But a properly maintained autopilot is undoubtedly a safety enhancement, especially for a VFR pilot who momentarily loses sight of the horizon.

Weather

Dealing with weather can be a serious challenge for pilots at night, and if the accident statistics are to be believed, it is the single most significant factor in general aviation accidents at night. That’s because it impacts so many other risks, from terrain to spatial disorientation.

For VFR pilots, dealing with weather at night is mostly a matter of being able to see clouds well enough to avoid them. The fact that the FARs require higher weather minimums at night is a good clue that you should be more pessimistic about weather. While a 2500 ft. overcast with 5 miles of visibility might be doable during the day, it’s beyond marginal at night. In particular, visibility is a place to be conservative.

Full moon at night
A full moon can make a huge difference for VFR flying – just make sure clouds won’t block it.

That doesn’t mean the answer is to cancel every flight. It does argue for knowing the air mass you’re flying in, and understanding the big picture. If those cloud bases are flat and there’s no precipitation to bring down visibility, a night VFR flight under an overcast can be perfectly safe. Be sure to understand not only the current weather but also the trend: flying into worsening weather at night is a recipe for disaster.

While it may sound like scud running, planning your night VFR flight to jump from airport to airport is a good tactic. This is not an excuse to fly in bad weather, it’s simply a way to give yourself an out at multiple points during your flight. The reality is, landing at an airport just behind you is a much safer move than turning around and flying all the way back to your departure airport–especially at night.

Even if you’re IFR, darkness adds challenges. As I’ve written before, visually avoiding convective weather is still the most effective way to stay safe–no matter what airplane you’re flying. While you might be able to avoid the red cells with datalink weather, you may not miss the turbulence in the surrounding clouds. This is particularly true since thunderstorms can sometimes be strongest after sunset, when the heat of the day has allowed them to build.

Getting on top is by far the best idea, especially if there’s a moon up there to give definition to the storm. If you can’t get on top, planning a route to pass well clear of the storms may be the only option. It’s near impossible to pick your way through a line of weather at night unless you have onboard radar. In fact, the longest deviation I’ve ever flown (some 25% out of the way) was at night because I simply couldn’t tell where the severe weather stopped. I filed to a VOR far to the west of direct, but stayed in VMC most of the way and had a smooth ride.

Sometimes, we’re also playing without a key piece of the weather picture. Especially late at night or early in the morning, there are almost always fewer pilot reports (PIREPs). If you’re trying to avoid ice or find the tops, this is something to consider.

It’s worth remembering that weather can change rapidly after sunset, as dew point spreads drop or fog rolls in. That’s why second approaches–never a good idea anyway–are a particularly awful choice at night. If the first approach ended in a miss due to weather, it’s exceedingly unlikely that things will get better on the second try.

Fuel management

This is an area that shouldn’t change at night–always land with an hour of fuel in the tanks, no matter what the weather or time of day. But certain factors do conspire against us at night, including changing weather and hours of operation for airports.

I remember a night cross country early on in my flying career that was going perfectly until I landed at my first fuel stop and discovered that the FBO was closed. Not wanting to disrupt my carefully laid plans, I took off and went to the next airport, but found that FBO closed as well. I eventually found an open airport, and I landed with an hour of fuel in the tanks, but just barely. It was a frightening example of how quickly we can talk ourselves into bad decisions at night.

Two new pieces of technology have improved the odds for pilots in recent years. The prevalence of smartphones and the incredible detail found in popular aviation apps makes it easy to find out when FBOs are open and make arrangements. There’s no excuse for not knowing whether that country airport will be open when you land. And given the powerful flight planning tools available for free these days, it’s also easier than ever to know a realistic time en route.

Self serve avgas pump
Self serve fuel pumps can make it a lot easier to fill up after hours.

The other advantage is the increasing availability of self-serve fuel pumps. Most of these are available 24 hours a day with a credit card, and while they may require a little work on your part, they are a great way to ensure fuel availability. I go so far as to plan my trips to specifically use self-serve fuel, because I know I’ll be able to get fuel when I need it (the lower prices don’t hurt either).

But even with these technological aids, there’s a certain mindset of wanting to get home that can make “get-home-itis” even worse at night. My own “I Can’t Believe I Did That” moment came when I was flying a Cessna 210 from Atlanta to Cincinnati, late at night. While the headwind kept getting stronger and the fuel gauges kept getting lower, I was anxious to get home on this Sunday night so I kept overflying perfectly good airports with fuel trucks.

I finally relented and landed for fuel at Lexington, KY. Watching the meter on the fuel truck go higher and higher was a sobering experience, and I’ve never made that mistake again. But I firmly believe I would not have been so careless if the flight had been during the day.

Fatigue

There’s been a lot of talk about fatigue lately, especially with the FAA’s proposed sleep apnea rule. While the cure is worse than the disease in this case, fatigue is a serious issue for pilots. And although general aviation pilots might not have the grueling flying schedule of an airline pilot, we are almost always flying single pilot. There’s not even a dispatcher to give us a second opinion about our fitness to fly.

Dealing with fatigue is mostly a question of discipline, because the science is clear. Dozens of studies over the past decade suggest the same boring conclusion: there is no miracle cure for fatigue. Humans are not machines, and after 18 hours awake, our performance slips until we eventually can’t stay awake. Caffeine can help with alertness, but it takes a lot of it (think 8 Cokes or a very large Starbucks coffee) to have an effect and it does nothing for your fine motor coordination. Using supplemental oxygen in cruise can also give you a temporary boost, but it’s no substitute for rest.

The best approach is to be realistic, and plan your flights to avoid serious fatigue. I promise there are no lectures here about getting 9 hours of sleep every night, but if you know you’ll have a long day of work and the weather is marginal, it’s simply wishful thinking to schedule a long flight home. Pilots are type A personalities and want to fit more into a day than the average person, but biology is against you. A 2009 Pilatus PC-12 accident in New Mexico is a perfect example: while we don’t know the precise cause of the accident, the pilot was not setting himself up for success. From the NTSB report:

The pilot had flown eight hours and 30 minutes on the day of the accident, crossing two time zones, and had been awake for no less than 17 hours when the accident occurred. The accident occurred at a time of day after midnight in the pilot’s departure time zone.

If you simply must make that flight, a cat nap before takeoff can help–indeed, the only cure for fatigue is rest. As hard as it may be, force yourself to book a hotel room or snooze room at the FBO and sleep. Flying with a passenger can help a lot, too. Even if they’re not a pilot, the act of talking can keep you more alert. At the very least, have a plan to slap the other person if they fall asleep.

Three strikes

The foregoing list makes it clear that night flying is serious business. That doesn’t mean we should fear it or avoid it, we simply have to be thoughtful about how we approach it. Most of the increased risks can be managed by choosing when to fly (not when you’re exhausted or the weather is bad) and where to fly (avoid unfamiliar airports and black hole approaches). A little time spent planning can make a huge difference.

One other thing to be aware of is that not all night flights start out in the dark. It’s not uncommon to take off in daylight, but land after the sun sets–especially in the winter. If your arrival time is even close to sunset, consider what might change at night, and be pessimistic about those winds aloft forecasts.

Night is also a good time for the three strikes rule: if the weather is marginal, the terrain is rough and you’re tired, it’s probably time to book that hotel room. Perhaps one of those risks could be managed, but safely handling all three is very unlikely. The margins just aren’t there in the dark.

6 Comments

  • It’s not just having less night time in general, it’s also about recent night time. If you haven’t flown much at night in a while, ask someone who has flown in the dark within about 30 days to go out with you. It’s safer for you and keeps them fresh in the night environment.

  • I usually try to maintain night currency by flying at night every 2 months rather than 90 days. For night currency purposes, as well as for student learning purposes, I think it’s a good idea to do at least some of the night flights in less than favorable conditions (weather being the exception). A bright, moonlit night isn’t always available, and we need to be able to handle the pitch dark, moonless nights, also.

    I also try to throw in a blackout landing every so often, too, so that I’m competent in that respect. Although I replaced the standard incandescent landing/taxi lights with HIDs on my airplane years ago so that they’re not only brighter but will last longer, there’s always the possibility of an electrical failure other than a burned out bulb.

    I echo being competent on instruments, whether the pilot has an IR or not. There are too many places throughout the US where it’s very difficult if not impossible to get ground clues on aircraft attitude–over water, farmlands, large parklands, etc.

    A word should be said about having a couple of good flashlights aboard. I’ve had more than one night flight that was salvaged because I had good flashlights. I have a MicLight on my boom mic, a GloveLight which I wear at night, plus the ubiquitous 2 D cell flashlight, a 2 AA cell flashlight, plus backups for both of them. Have I needed them? Yup, not all at once, but it’s sure made my night flying a whole lot less problematic.

    Cary

  • I like the idea of planning your route to over fly airports along your route. Besides making it more convenient to stop for fuel or divert if needed, another good reason is if you have an alternator failure or other mechanical issue you can continue or return to the nearest airport along your route.

    Another gotcha with the weather at night is with respect to dew point/temperature spread. Obviously, temp. has a tendency to drop after sunset and this could set up the unwary pilot for an unexpected encounter with fog. Particularly if there was rain during the day (the ground/air is more moist). Watch for the ground lights to get “fuzzy”. Additionally, the hour after sunrise often sees temps drop even further, raising the probability of fog, weather it’s forecast or not. Especially in the valleys.

  • Excellent article. Like the others, I had a few must-do’s for my area. Recurrency training involved night work as well as hood work. It gets very dark out there with no visual ground lighting or land marks. The flights were voluntary in nature, flying for a local NPO, sometimes on an emergency basis, and typically involving mountainous areas with peaks over 7000′, I would not fly the routes at night unless I had flown them in day VFR, and WX CAVU. In Arizona that’s not that tough to meet. Flight planning was critical as was aircraft systems working as required. I rented so if a system was not up to speed, I aborted the trip unless another aircraft was available. I realize those flying for hire don’t always have those options.

  • I flew for 30 years VFR and the last 10 IFR. In retrospect, the not so nice weather was adrenalin pumping, buttock squeezing and worryingly dangerous. I never flew Night VFR but no doubt it would be like that all the time. Mostly you just can’t see clouds so how can you avoid them? The last 10 years has been bliss. IFR is so EAZY. Sure the training is a bit hard but once you’ve climbed that mountain the view from the top is spectacular. Furthermore, with an IFR plan, there is someone looking out for you all the way. Night is even better, its IFR so it doesn’t matter if it’s night or day. The air is calm and smooth, the controllers are relaxed and enjoying their night shift, even making jokes from time to time. with VFR you’r on your own. Very Frightening Really.

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