In 1976 Bob Seger released “Night Moves”, a song about going out “parking” on a date.
For those of you too young to have ever bought an 8-track tape, prior to the eighties most cars other than true sport cars had bench seats. The room these seats offered made drive in movies and country gravel roads a lot more interesting.
For pilots north of the Tropic of Cancer, the end of Daylight Savings Time means winter weather is rapidly approaching. It also means that, for many of us, it will be dark by the time we can make it to the airport after work. (OK, I know I work at an airport, but I understand most pilots aren’t that lucky). But does darkness mean you can’t fly or continue your training? Hardly. Even if you are nyctophobic, (look it up, it is a word) now is the time to conquer your fears. Flying after dark can be just as much fun as in daylight but does require some additional planning.
First of all, your aircraft must be ready for night flight. Navigation lights are required for any flight after sunset. Landing lights become more critical and, of course, you want interior lights to work after dark. You will need a good flashlight, make that two or three. I prefer one fairly bright to perform the necessary pre-flight inspections and securing the aircraft post flight. (Author’s note: If you are planning an overnight stay and flying after dark, consider buying an overnight bag of some bright color or putting reflective tape on it. This will make it less likely for you to leave it on a dark ramp. Don’t ask me how I know this.)
I prefer a dim white light over a red lens (or LED) for additional cockpit lighting. In my opinion, night vision is not compromised very much by low white light while everything on a sectional chart that is red or magenta, and a lot is, will “disappear” under red illumination. Some lights allow varying degrees of illumination and are perfect for pilots. Also consider using a lanyard to secure your flashlight during flight. A dropped unilluminated flashlight is virtually impossible to find as it rolls under the rudder pedals (again, don’t ask me how I know). These new LED lights are super reliable and darn nearly indestructible, but I always like to carry a spare, just in case.
How can you incorporate night flying into your training? You may be aware that 10 night landings are required for Private Pilot candidates. It’s a lot easier to “stay up” until 8 or 9 pm fulfilling this requirement than starting your lesson at 10 pm as long summer days require. A night cross country flight is another requirement. Also, the obligation for 3 hours of flight solely by instrument reference can be more realistically fulfilled (with less cheating out the corner of the hood) at night.
Often the combination of cool air and darkness will lead to superb visibility. On one recent trip, (in Sporty’s Legend Cub Sweepstakes Airplane) I could see the lights of Cincinnati from Columbus nearly 90 nautical miles away. At a groundspeed of 80 MPH, my destination was visible for well over an hour. The towns look just like those yellow areas on the sectional charts and the navigation lights make airplanes easier to spot.
The color of those lights also makes it easy to tell if the traffic is approaching or flying away from you. If you see a green light on the left and a red light on the right the airplane is heading for you. Hence the mnemonic Red Right Run! These days, most of the airplanes I fly have LED landing/taxi lights with 5000 hour service lives. 5000 hours is essentially forever so I leave them on all the time making my airplane visible to others from even greater distances.
Like all flights, an off airport landing is a risk. At night it is hard to tell if that dark spot is an open field, woods or a lake. I have pre-decided that if required, I would land close to a light hoping someone would hear me and come help. Other than a flashlight, I think a handheld transceiver is required equipment. If all the electrons in your airplane quit moving, the handheld can be used to get you home and turn on the airport’s pilot controlled lighting. In an off airport landing, a call on 121.5 to some airplane monitoring “guard” may bring you the help you need.
There is no thing such as bad weather, just inadequate clothing. I always like to carry an extra jacket and some insulated gloves with me during winter, but especially at night. Think about other things you might need to make it to morning. More and more pilots are carrying a Personal Locator Beacon that will not only notify search and rescue you are in distress, but also inform them who you are, who to contact and your exact location.
Night flying has one great advantage. The amount of traffic decreases greatly. Usually controllers have time for flight following and the traffic patterns are empty. A word of caution as you land on rural runways. Watch out for critters! (OK four words).
Deer tend to move just after dark and just before dawn. I have found making a low pass over the runway, then circling in the pattern to land will keep the deer away long enough. Smaller critters may also snuggle in for the latent heat in the asphalt as the night air cools off. Just be ready to maneuver around whatever comes into view and remember you are not done flying until all the parts quit moving.
Yes night flying is a lot of fun. So practice your aeronautical “Night Moves” during the long evenings this winter. It will keep your skills sharp. Just like everything else, the more you do it, the better you will become. The better you are flying at night, the more those scary gremlins will be chased out of your psyche, making night flights more comfortable for both you and your passengers.