Why night flying is special

This picture embodies so much to me. This is one of my first solo night flights. I’m a private pilot with over 400 hours. My aviation journey began later in life, as my first priority has been raising my family for the last 20 years. My fascination with flying began long ago, as a young girl, flying aerobatics with my uncle. Although earning my pilot’s license was fairly recent, my knowledge and interest in airplanes has been life-long.

Because of my late start, I’ve crammed more flying in these past two years than many other pilots. I’ve got a lifetime of destinations to visit on my wish list and have proudly logged more than 52 airports to date. After a recent night flight, my appreciation for the dark sky was apparent. Pilots have flexibility to choose their routes and timing of trips. That’s one of the great things about general aviation: freedom. Experiencing the world from above is a great privilege we pilots have.

Night flight
The view is just different at night.

Day flying and night flying are different but each has its own unique benefits. What I love about flying during the day is the ability to see everything in miniature form. Day flights are alive with energy and adrenaline. Life is constantly moving along at Mach speed. Cars are quickly proceeding to their destinations. You are a witness to the beauty and mediocrity of daily life. Everyone branches off to their own personal terminus: doctor, school, meeting, store, etc. It’s easy to recognize and sympathize with the people I share the world with below. The roads are all carefully planned to get people from Point A to Point B (although sometimes you do wonder what the road planning commission was thinking about!). It’s comforting to witness people doing exactly what I do every single day. It’s a bond we all share with one another, even though it’s not always enjoyable.

Night flights are distinct. They are pretty rare for me. They seem unorthodox and more dangerous. It’s uncomfortable not being able to see everything as one would during the daylight hours. The excitement of my first night flight during training was unforgettable. The whole atmosphere around the airport was different. It was eerie. Everything was quiet around the airfield and the FBO. There was a security guard looming around in his security car with his giant spotlight. All of the friendly faces of students and other instructors had disappeared for the day. The line boys were gone. The preflight was extremely frustrating; trying to balance a flashlight in one hand and check the gas tanks and oil level with the other. Of course, being careful not to blind myself with white light, too!

As my instructor and I lifted off the runway and into the air, it was more calm than I had anticipated. The air was so smooth! The view was vastly different. The city lights twinkled and made everything below us radiate. The city seemed mellow and peaceful. It was nearly impossible to discern individual cars traveling the roads. The chatter on the radio was considerably more quiet. It was relaxing. From that point on, flying at night would become one of my favorite ways to travel. Each time, I realize what a unique position I’m in that not many get to experience. I’m grateful. During that time, my mind is willingly quieted like the rest of world. I choose to listen to the hum of the engine versus music streaming into my headset. The tasks of piloting are less harried. The dark sky transports me and my mind to a different place. It’s acceptable for me to just enjoy the ride. This is the time to not think about what comes tomorrow, but allow myself to become what surrounds me: calm, quiet and easy-going.

Each flight comes to an end (hopefully at my planned destination!). Sometimes, I just want the flight to go on and on. Don’t they always seem to end too soon? Inevitably, once it’s time to land, as the airplane gets closer to the runway, it’s time to reset and get back into full-on concentration mode. Life will once again be busy and noise will fill my surroundings. My days are filled with activities, appointments, errands. Thankfully, flying at night has become more and more my preferred time to travel. It’s easier for me to schedule as well. If flying at night seems intimidating, practice it more with a friend or instructor. Every pilot can find joy in night flying if they allow themselves.

12 Comments

    • Allan, Thanks for reading! I agree that you should take some extra precautions when flying at night. Thankfully, there are many tools available to help pilots be more aware of what’s on their flight path!

  • This reminds me of a flight I took many years ago. It was IFR at night between Rochester NY and Burlington VT over the Adirondacks. My wife who is instrument rated was flying, and my mother who was not a pilot was in the back. We were between layers, with no lights on the ground, and a moonless sky above. Except for the reflectors on the nav lights, we couldn’t see anything outside the plane. It was dark, completely black. Since we were between layers, there wasn’t even the usual glow around the nav lights that you see at night in IMC. And it was silken smooth. There was absolutely no feeling of motion. It was as if we were suspended in space in the Twilight Zone. There was nothing except the drone of the engine and the glow of the instrument lights. My mother asked if we were on the ground. All too soon it was time to come down, break out at an ample altitude, and watch for the comforting sight of the approach lights at BTV. In my 7000 hours of flying, this was the only time I had this experience.

    • Bob,
      That sounds like a great memory! I love having those unique, once-in-a-lifetime moments. It’s amazing to me how some flights stir up some emotions and others don’t! Sometimes, those are the flights that are hardest to describe to others too. I’m sure with 7000 hours of flying you’ve had a lot of cool experiences in the air. I’m excited to see what more flights will bring my way! Thanks for reading and for sharing your story.

  • Thanks for the story! Not all night flying is quieter–I recall my first solo night flight I discovered that after 9 PM local EVERY Air National Guard helicopter pilot in the state seems to converge on our airfield to practice instrument approaches. It was super stressful just doing a couple circuits even though they were all very polite. A couple extra points for night flying:

    – Read about night illusions, it’s important to be prepared for them
    – Consider pre-flighting with a headlamp (like bikers and cavers use). It leaves both hands free. I use one with a red light that I wear under my headset, it’s my failsafe if all other lights fail.
    – If your eyes are old, far-sightedness becomes much more significant in dim lighting. Consider your options–having a dim tablet you can zoom in on preserves night vision better than a chart you have to shine a bright light on to read.

    • That does sound a little stressful! I did recently buy a baseball cap that hunters use with a light built into the bill. Thanks for the other tips too!

  • Natalie- Good morning- Great article! I have been a private pilot for several years and had forgotten how much I enjoy night flight until I read your article. Thank you!
    -Richard Gregory

    • You’re welcome! Try to take a night flight soon, it may be a nice break from the more turbulent summer weather!

  • Nice article, Natalie———very well said. There are many good suggestions above from Jay. I’d like to add one more: Consider using oxygen at night, even at lower altitudes. It really helps improve your night vision. Keep the articles coming, and get that instrument rating. Instrument approaches are very helpful at night when flying in to unfamiliar airports, even in VMC conditions.

    • Thanks Mike! I will feel much better once I get that instrument rating and can make instrument approaches at night, if needed. I have heard about using oxygen at night too. I will definitely have it ready in the plane!

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