Spooked about night flying in singles?

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.

Why?

Night flying
Does that second engine make you safer at night? Sort of.

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.

Fuel gauges getting low
One good way to avoid an engine-out landing at night? Don’t run out of fuel.

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.

CLT at night
All those airport lights can be confusing on takeoff.

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.

Runway lights at night
At night, it’s much harder to determine when you break out on an instrument approach.

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.

18 Comments

  • As I was reading my mind was traveling between your excellence in presenting educational information, eye opening to the unsuspected aviator and the legendary aviator who lost his life on a level 6 thunderstorm in a C-210A.
    It must have been as dark as night.
    ” Scott Crossfield’s Cessna 210A likely entered a Level 6 thunderstorm and was involved in a low-altitude inflight breakup, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report on the Apr. 19 crash that killed the legendary test pilot.”
    A second pilot could have saved the day, just by talking to him into avoiding the build up.

    • Regarding the Scott Crossfield incident. First, as Chris P. opined, a second pilot is ALWAYS helpful, especially at night and especially IMC. Second set of eyeballs, senses, doing the work of Jimmy Cricket, etc. Have I flown night IMC single engine solo? Yes. I have done a lot of things when I was much younger that I would never do again. But regarding Crossfield, as I recall he was vectored into the T-storm and the FAA even took the unusual step of accepting the blame.

      Which is a different lesson to learn from. “Those who have ears, let them hear.”

      I would hazard to guess that most of us now have in-cockpit weather via ADS-B in through various devices. That is certainly a help. It is another aid, not a substitute for another set of eyes, ears and hands. Which leads to my own war story similar to Richard Collins…There I was, day, VMC, actually CAVU, IFR into IAD expecting visual approach. Approach then says cleared for ILS 1R, report (intersection). SHOOT! I am already in the Class B. l toss the iPad to my then 10 year old son and tell him, “quick, bring up the ILS 1R approach and give me the frequency while I dial the approach in on the 530 to get the intersection.”

  • You are absolutely right about the hazard posed by fatigue. Many years ago I commuted to work by air from Tracy CA to McClellan industrial park (formerly McClellan Airbase). In winter those return flights were at night and often in IMC. The closest I have ever come to crashing an airplane was on a night instrument approach to a runway well below minimums after a very long day. I won’t bother you with the details. You can read them, with minor variations, in a dozen accident investigation reports.

  • Mr. Collins;

    Thanks for all of your articles and Videos over the years. You have helped me become a safer pilot. I have saved a lot of your On Top articles from the 70’s. I attended a talk you gave at Seatac in 1980. A shiny new P210 was parked outside.

    In 2009 I purchased a 2004 Skylane. At the time, my instructor and I were both still working so we flew a lot after work shooting approaches at night. Away from city lights with no references, it was good IFR practice . However, I can say I never got totally comfortable with the night environment. Yes, it is smoother, and in some ways traffic is easier to spot, but your options are limited if the engine quits. Your fatal accident data for night operations stuck in my head.

    After I retired, I quit flying at night. One of the many adjustments I have made in my lifestyle as I became a senior citizen.

  • Well said as usual. After an NFO career in the USN flying at night off carriers often on minimal sleep for mission, I got my PPL, AMEL, etc on my own dime. One night in a 152 after a long day and with my trusty CFI by my side on an approach, with low ceilings, local terrain funneled winds shifting one to the other inside the FAF trying to track via rinky dink vacuum instruments I decided I had no civilian mission that “required” night, single pilot, low IFR.

    Risk has two elements, likelihood and consequence. As many say, the airplane doesn’t know any better, but if the pilot is tired, low WX challenges the sight picture, your vision is compromised (reading glasses, fatigue, altitude effects), and you have ruled out most diverts for approach suitability or lack of after hours service, then you have increased the “likelihood” element of risk. The other element, “consequence” of night power loss remains more challenging than the day scenario.

    This doesn’t mean I don’t fly at night single engine, it just means I respect the risk and give more thought about why I’m going, planning, go/no go criteria and my personal readiness.

    As to the outcome differences between mechanical failure or fuel management, I can see that as someone who runs out gas being just as immature about assessing their skills as their flight planning.

  • I am a new pilot with just a couple of rides to go before my second check ride after a disapproval on my first. The disapproval was caused by my failing to react properly when the examiner asked me to keep my eyes closed for what seemed like an eternity and attempt to fly straight and level – just after he had put the plane in an upset condition! I was so disoriented after that exercise that the examiner took the controls to prevent us from crashing while i was trying to figure out what my instruments were telling me. I have gone through the upset and recovery with my CFI on many occasions with no difficulty but the aspect of having one’s eyes closed for even a few seconds was totally disconcerting and disorienting – much as it is when you fly at night and try to change the squawk code on the transponder when the plane is moving and you are not looking at either the six pack or outside. Over the ocean is particularly tricky (I fly in SW Florida). Also, I should point out that I was so shook up after that, that I called out the wrong runway number on an airport I have flown into maybe 30 times in training flights. Good lesson in risk management and surprises. Long story but I.L.A.F.F.T. I’m eager to go back and finish the check ride after a good night’s sleep and time to practice those maneuvers more. I felt that my first and second night flights were fine and landing was actually easier for me (VFR, of course). But at this point, I have no particular need or desire to fly at night. I like to see where i’m going – and where I might land if the need arises!

    • Try to prolong your training, you can fly with another experienced CFI after consulting with your current one.
      You seem very meticulous and safety oriented person, build on your natural gifts and learn from your check ride experience. You are blessed to have the disorientation experience just before your Certificate.
      Imagine not to be tested on this item by the DPE and encounter the same alone at a later flight.
      Good luck !!!!
      Fly Safe !!!!

  • Regarding night flights, I always enjoyed them. Beside the beautiful sky on star-lit nights, it’s easy to spot populated areas and airports. Usually smoother air, but admittedly, sketchy weather makes ya wish for daylight. (Trueism: better to be “down there” wishing to be up here, than “up here” wishing you were down there)

    I’m reminded of a discussion many long years ago between several new, wannabe pilots, and an old, crusty veteran CFI. My question was, on a night flight in a single, and the engine fails, is it better to head to the lighter areas of ground below, or to the darker areas? His response was to first check everything, and try a restart. If that failed, turn on the landing lights, when you near the ground, if you don’t like what you see, turn the landing lights off and pray. Point was, when flying at night SE, and engine failure occurs, you knew the risks and consequences before you departed (as someone previously mentioned), so “it is what it is”.

    I experienced one engine failure (SEL) at night… by good fortune, or the grace of God, I was almost directly overhead of what had once been a military training base with all kinds of runways and no traffic. I’d departed Love Field in Dallas. A failure sooner would have put me over a very large, densely populated residential and business area; a bit later, and I’d have been over forest and swamp in Southern Arkansas..!

    Another time, I almost died of a heart attack, thinking the engine had come apart one Winter night at 1,000 AGL over dense forest without even a logging trail in sight. (OK, I was young and invincible back then.) There was an explosion, something flew through the cabin, the cabin filled with smoke, and the mic cord was swinging wildly… turned out a butane cigarette lighter had fallen to the floor, landed on the heater vent, and eventually blew up… the engine was fine, but it took a bit for me to recover from the adrenaline overload. Whew!

  • I was OK with night flying because my instructor taught me how to handle it. He said if the engine quit to set up a best glide angle and as I approached the ground to turn on the landing light and try to land. But, if I saw trees to just turn it back off.

  • Great piece—thanks!

    I faced a different kind of night hazard a number of years ago during my first (and only) visit to CYWG Winnipeg while taxiing for a pre-dawn departure: I suddenly got a slight gnawing feeling that … just maybe … I might be coming up on the hold-short line for the wrong runway, and was struggling to be able to map the airport diagram and dim compass readings to the bright lights and big dark spaces I was seeing outside the window (this was just before I had access to Safe Taxi-style electronic charts).

    Even though I thought there was probably nothing wrong, I did one thing right: I decided that “probably” wasn’t good enough. I stopped moving, called Ground, and asked for help. It turned out it was the wrong runway. They kindly agreed to give me progressive taxi instructions and got me to the right place. My brain suddenly unfogged, everything made spatial sense again, and I had a beautiful VFR flight watching the sun rise over Lake of the Woods.

  • “If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t do it”.

    True words.

    In my forty year career in military and corporate aviation, I acquired some 800 hours of dark time which represented about 5 percent of my total. That was acquired on single- and twin-engine aircraft and helicopters.

    I enjoyed night flying and generally found that the air was smoother and the radio was quieter.

    However, if you aren’t getting enough flying at night to be comfortable, don’t do it. For instance; now retired for over a dozen years and owning my own aircraft, I don’t night fly at all:

    One: I don’t have to
    Two: I’m in a mountainous area.
    Three: I’m not maintaining night proficiency

    It would be foolhardy of me to periodically (2-3 times a year) decide that I had to be somewhere after the sun went down.

    People who don’t feel comfortable flying at night shouldn’t lay a beating on themselves… If you will never fly enough “dark time” to feel comfortable at it, do as I do and have the TV remote or a good book in hand when the sun goes down!

  • Richard, your vast aviation knowledge coupled with an equally skilled writing talent always make your articles a pleasure to read and most importantly to learn from.
    With regards to this article on night flying in a single, you clear up many questions I have pondered during my low-time experience as a private pilot, and that will provide me with a far better base to begin night training when I decide to do so. Thank you and keep ’em coming.

  • System Malfunction – Powerplant is consistently the second most likely “defining event” for GA accidents (the first being LOC-I). When we add all of the OTHER causes of power loss (fuel starvation; fuel exhaustion; operator error) plus a portion of the “unknown” and “other” categories the potential for engine failure becomes more than just another statistic. The number of NTSB reportable accidents from power loss events dwarf LOC-I.

    About 5% of my 4000 hours flying single engine, fixed wing, piston engine, production aircraft was logged at night. I’ve become VERY sensitive to the potential for a loss of power problem having experienced two maintenance related ‘system malfunction – powerplant’ events at night. FWIW, neither resulted in an NTSB ‘accident’, one was classified as an FAA ‘incident’… hence there is now no record of either event in either FAA or NTSB files. Obviously, the official tally of engine failures for GA is understated. Prior to a 2013 presentation on EP procedures that I did after my last night power loss event I created an online survey to get a feel for how much the official files understate power loss events for SE FW PE production aircraft. Nearly 900 pilots have contributed their experiences. Bottom line: About 20% of pilots reported one or more total loss of power events, and about 20% of those (about 4% of all participating pilots) reported an NTSB accident. Nearly 35% of pilots reported partial power loss, and of these about 5% said the outcome was an NTSB accident. From these data and my own experience it’s my opinion that for GA pilots night (or IMC) conditions impose very significant risks. FWIW, the relatively small number of NTSB accidents that occur at night is just an artifact of the low number of GA hours at night. Yes, some pilots can manage through (with a lot of luck, and a measure of skill). But the odds are agin’ us if we choose to fly SE FW PE aircraft at night or in IMC.

    • Sounds like you need to fly in daylight. The events that don’t become NTSB accidents have been hashed over a lot and while there are lessons there they did all have a happy ending. My interest has always been in making pilots aware of the things that turn all the lights out, forever.

  • Years ago I was flying a rented 172 at night in some really nasty IMC. I had a massive headwind and had to land short of my destination at Roanoke, VA for fuel. I was beat up and tired and the WX was at minimums with rain and wind. I was given an LDA approach for runway 6. I broke out at minimums and immediately became disoriented. I was in a turn when all the instruments told me I was level. Fortunately, my young-at-the-time mind made sense of things. The LDA approach was offset about 12 degrees, as I recall, from the runway centerline causing the illusion of turning. No one had ever warned me about that and I was lucky to learn the lesson and survive to tell about it. I had planned to fuel up and head on home but canceled that plan and got a hotel room. As Richard points out, night flying is full of illusions which is why I consider all night flights instrument flights from takeoff to touchdown.

  • The first thing they teach you in truck driving school is “Never run out of fuel.”

    Although you pointed out that “If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t do it.” there seems to be more at play, namely ego and ignorance. On the other hand, what could be more fun than an IFR-rated pilot in the fog. Good times!

  • Amen Richard. Another great article as usual. In all my years of flying, I have come to the conclusion that fatigue and fuel exhaustion are the two biggest problems in night flying, coupled with losing control of the a/c on approach. Fatigue, the pilot owner businessman is thinking “I got this”, runs out of fuel, short of the destination or on approach, has been up all day. What better way to end the day by flying hundreds of miles at night just to save a few bucks from a hotel room. Fuel exhaustion. Forget it nooooo excuse what so ever. I am sorry, you get what you deserve. Thirdly, pilots think they know how to fly the a/c on the gauges, but too many rely on the a/p. You should be so skilled on the gagues that any thing you do should be automatic. Too many people let the a/p do the work and lose it. Not enough skill is done in actual IMC. Lastly people do not realize the stress involved in night, single engine, single pilot, low minimums to approach. You are too young for wisdom! Park it live to fly another day. Long ago I learned this A/C addage. 50 years plus. The wreckage was found the next day in the clear!!

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