If not, maybe you should be
There will be a debate about flying at night in single-engine airplanes for as long as there are single-engine airplanes and it gets dark every night. That is a given.
Recently the son of an old friend emailed and asked me what I thought about flying singles at night. His apparent reluctance to do so stemmed from two things. One was a catastrophic engine failure in the daytime that led a successful forced landing in a good spot. He wondered how it would have worked at night. The other was the fact that his father thought flying singles at night was a bad idea and always kept a Baron in his hangar in case he wanted to go flying in the dark.
My stock answer to pilots who express concern about this is simple: If you are not comfortable with it, don’t do it.
The first article I wrote on this subject was over 50 years ago. I have revisited the subject many times since and nothing ever changes. The fatal accident rate at night is from two to five times higher than in the daytime and it is even worse for night IFR in IMC flying. That was true then and it is true now. Any way you look at it, night flying can be labeled as hazardous.
Let’s first look at the elephant in the room, engine failure in a single. When the accident record is examined there are few night accidents related to the mechanical failure of the engine in a single. In most periods, there are more such night accidents related to fuel system mismanagement or fuel exhaustion. The fuel business is in the hands of the pilot. The mechanical business is not.
Whatever the cause of a power failure at night, it’s a cinch that the pilot is between a rock and a hard place with fancy control work and a burst of brilliance required to survive.
I once found that pilots who mismanage or run out of fuel do a worse job of forced landings, day or night, than do pilots whose engine rattles and quits. This could be related to two things. One would be the pilot feeling pretty dumb for getting into a fuel problem and pilots who feel dumb don’t fly well. The other would be a period of stress before the event, especially in the case of fuel exhaustion. Trying to stretch gas is a stressful exercise and when the silence finally comes the pilot might already be rattled.
Whatever the cause of the engine failure and however dark the night or bad the weather, though, a pilot who has always flown with a plan on how to handle this and who keeps cool and keeps flying until the accident sequence begins always has a chance.
I’ll offer an illustration. I have used this accident before. It was always interesting to me because it involved a type airplane, a Cessna P210, that I had flown for nearly 9,000 hours and it happened in one of my old stomping grounds. It was easy for me to put myself in the cockpit with this pilot on a dark and stormy night, with the fuel gauges sinking like a one-egg pudding.
After flying for six hours, the pilot arrived at Pensacola, Florida, where it was dark and the weather was low. My P210 had about the same fuel capacity as his and after six hours there would not be much fuel left, certainly not enough to feel comfortable about an approach to minimums with the possibility of a trip to an alternate if the approach wasn’t successful.
This pilot’s approach was not successful. In fact, he made two missed approaches. The pilot then felt sure he didn’t have enough fuel to make it to his filed alternate, Mobile, Alabama.
The controller suggested a closer airport and the pilot headed there. Soon, though, the engine quit.
The night was dark and the pilot said he could not see any terrain features below him. The pilot pulled the prop control out to minimize drag. He set up a 90-knot glide, saw trees with the aid of the landing light, and apparently maintained control until the trees took over. He obviously implemented a plan.
The airplane stopped nose down in a deep wooded area. The pilot and his passengers got out and the pilot called 911 for help. According to the NTSB, of the four on board one suffered serious injuries and the other three minor or no injuries.
The reason this accident is a good example is that after making a lot of mistakes and flying the airplane to the point of fuel exhaustion, the pilot was able to make a survivable forced landing in woods at night. The key was in maintaining control until the accident sequence started. There can be hope after an engine failure during night IFR if everything is done correctly.
No, it couldn’t happen that way every time but it did happen that way at least one time. And yes, if you fly a Cirrus the parachute would offer a lot more than hope after such an engine failure.
It was always my feeling that by being extra conservative about fuel and going for the best available engine maintenance I could minimize, but not completely eliminate, the risk related a power failure, day or night, VFR or IFR. The small risk that remained was, to me, in the background noise of all the other risks that are out there.
The far larger problem at night is related to the pilot.
Most of us fly at night when we need to but this doesn’t lead to what you might call a lot of night flying. I flew only about three-percent of my hours at night and in doing research I found that most pilots flying for business and personal reasons flew from two to five percent of their time at night. True night people would probably do more. The main thing is for us to realize that most of us are inexperienced at night flying and especially at night IFR flying. Ace by day, rookie by night in other words.
I always gave careful thought to this when flying at night and found it a good idea to continually remind myself that things look and seem different in the dark. Something that I might have done in the daytime without a lot of thought, because I had done it so many times, became something that needed careful analysis in the dark.
The weather was quite murky as my son and I droned along in the clouds, at night, thinking about the fuel stop we would have to make on the flight from Trenton, New Jersey, to Dothan, Alabama.
That accident I related earlier came when the P210 ran out of fuel after flying for six hours. This night I calculated that it would take no less than five and half hours to reach Dothan nonstop and that is why the fuel stop was in mind. That would be cutting it too close.
In some research I once found that two-thirds of the night IFR accidents happened on approach and that half of these came on precision approaches, of which there were a lot less then than there are now.
That being the case, adding a night approach to the activities did increase the over-all risk. Weighed against the possibility of fuel exhaustion this was, to me, one of those risks that are worth taking.
I always thought that stopping for fuel at night was best done at major airports where there are good approaches and lighting. The FBOs at major airports are usually 24/7 operations and this is relatively easy to check. This night I knew that we could get fuel at Charlotte, North Carolina, but I wasn’t sure that would be true at many of the smaller airports that were in reach. Also, this was a while back, before automatic weather reporting became available for most airports.
The weather at Charlotte wasn’t all that good with 300 obscured and three-quarters of a mile visibility. The approach would be an ILS so the reported weather was a notch above minimums which might make it a piece of cake by day but scuzzy weather at night always seemed to me to be real scuzzy no matter what was reported.
My son was in the left seat, flying, and as we were being vectored for the approach I gave him the lecture about getting it right the first time by sticking with the localizer and glideslope even after lights started becoming visible, and not going completely visual until the threshold was coming up under the nose and the runway was in clear view.
Okay Dad, I got it.
He flew a good ILS to Rwy 36R and I was soon paying the bill for the fuel and we were getting ready to depart for Dothan.
I was still in the right seat but I couldn’t keep my mouth shut about what I thought would be an unusual condition for our departure on Rwy 36R.
The terminal complex is in the center of the airport, between the north/south runways. (There were two then, another has been added since. The FBO, now Wilson, is on the east side of the airport.) On 36R we would be taking off in a condition with a lot of lights to our left and not many lights to our right. I don’t know that I had ever seen anything about that being a potential cause of spatial disorientation but I couldn’t help but feel that bright to the left and dark to the right might be disorienting. I explained this to my son.
Okay Dad, I got it.
He concentrated on the instruments and flew away with no problem, but when I looked out front before we flew away from the airport environment it gave me a case of the leans, curable by looking at the attitude indicator.
When I think back to that night, I am reminded of a number of night departure accidents that came after a loss of control in an area where ground lighting would be quite or even totally uneven, such as an airport by a big body of water or one with all the lights in the middle as at Charlotte. That is something that we don’t think about in the daytime but that can be potentially hazardous in the dark.
If it sounds like that arrival and departure required a lot of thought, it did, and it did because it was dark. I have been reading accident reports for over 50 years and if that has value it is in learning about where other pilots have stumbled and avoiding, or dealing with, those hazards.
While I did fly some relatively long night flights by myself, over the years I flew mostly with another pilot and I can honestly say that I would rather have a good pilot at my side at night than another engine. Even a knowledgeable non-pilot can be a big help at night. That comes from both experience and from reading all those accident reports.
Before exploring this a bit, I want to share a solo night flight that was different.
I was headed home to Arkansas from the east coast in my 172 one winter day. As happens in an airplane of that speed, especially westbound, the daylight and miles didn’t come out even. Not even close in this case.
It was after dark when I made a fuel stop and I had every intention of finding a bed and sacking out. I didn’t, for one big reason. The ground was snow covered and there was a full moon. It was so strikingly beautiful that I had to go back for more. I flew on home that night and the spectacular view kept me awake and alert. That was the only time I encountered a full moon/snow condition in 57 years and 20,000 hours and while I would have loved to share it with another person, I had a ball enjoying it all by myself.
So why is another person a safety feature at night?
Everything is more difficult at night. Things are not as visible and having a backup is helpful. There is also the question of fatigue, something that likely figures in a lot more accidents than indicated by probable causes. Talking to another person can be refreshing and if they can help with something, all the better.
He wasn’t a pilot at the time because he was only nine but my son was a big help one night at Houston. I was 40 and thought my vision was fine but trying the read the numbers on an approach chart at night wasn’t working well so I got a little help on that from the right seat. That is an area where electronic charts and other information have taken away one night disadvantage. A lot of things that used to be difficult to see are now easy to see.
Crew (or cockpit) resource management is important at night, too. If flying alone this means keeping everything up to the minute and having whatever you need to look at next ready when you are.
Go back to that approach at Charlotte and the moment when lights were first visible. In the daytime it is pretty easy to know when you have flown into visual conditions on most approaches. At night, approaches are best flown using the information on the panel until reaching minimums for the approach and then the runway threshold. That means having the minimum altitude firmly in mind until passing the point where you no longer need it.
There is a higher likelihood of a missed approach at night, too, and you don’t want to fly into this with a blank mind. Not only must the missed approach procedure be flown but the answer to the question about what happens next had best be in mind. All that is harder to sort out in the dark.
Finally, one more war story, one that covers the value of another pilot, fatigue, weather, darkness and crew resource management.
The day in my P210 started in Bakersfield, California, and progressed through Farmington, New Mexico, Wichita, Kansas, Indianapolis, Indiana, with a final destination of home base, Mercer County Airport in Trenton, New Jersey. My son was building time so I let him fly all legs.
We had been flying for ten hours and 35 minutes when it got dark, an hour out of Trenton. It was raining and there with a brisk northwest surface wind. A cold front had just passed.
As we prepped for the approach I delivered the same lecture I had at Charlotte (which happened several years later) and added that it had been a long day, we were tired, but this needed to be done right because a missed approach would be an unwelcome addition to the day.
Okay Dad, I got it.
The air was rough and the rain hard on the approach but he had the localizer and glideslope pretty well nailed. We broke out at about 400 feet and I think we were both a bit taken by the amount of drift correction it was taking to follow the localizer. The runway was most definitely not straight ahead. Big crosswind.
Gee Dad, now you land.
And that is crew resource management IFR at night as practiced by a 17-year old private pilot.
For over 50 years, pilots turned to Richard L. Collins for his unique perspective on the challenges and rewards of flying light aircraft. He started his career working with his father, Leighton Collins, at the original Air Facts magazine. He then went on to work for the leading aviation magazines, including as editor of both AOPA Pilot and Flying. With over 20,000 hours of real world experience, much of it in Cessna 172s and P210s, Collins wrote about safety, weather and air traffic control from first-hand experience. He was the author of numerous books, including Logbooks, published in 2016 by Sporty’s Pilot Shop. Collins passed away in April, 2018.