The High and Writey: Nightflight

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Night Flight: An experienced night flyer shares his thoughts on aviating in the dark. 

“The villages were lighting up, constellations that greeted each other across the dusk. And, at the touch of his finger, his flying-lights flashed back a greeting to them. The earth grew spangled with light signals as each house lit its star, searching the vastness of the night as a lighthouse sweeps the sea. Now every place that sheltered human life was sparkling. And it rejoiced him to enter into this one night with a measured slowness, as into an anchorage.” 

  —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Night Flight”

I have often said that if the creator had wanted people to fly at night, she never would have invented happy hour. Humans are daytime creatures. We tend to get sleepy at night, and the more mature and sensible ones—like myself—hit the rack fairly early in the evening.

However, there is no real reason to avoid flying in the nighttime hours. There are quite a few advantages of slipping your surlies when the rest of the flying world slumbers. For example, it is impossible to get a sun-glare headache at night. The darkness found at night is not half as frightening as the darkness you run into if you enter a large thunderstorm during the day.

As I have mentioned around 10,000 times now, I used to be an airline pilot. Because I was an airline pilot, I flew an enormous amount of time late at night all over the world. When I was a very junior airline pilot, it seemed that all I ever did was fly very late at night. My first years’ trips were mostly all-nighters from one coast to another.

Later, when I got some seniority and was a captain of a very large subsonic people-mover, I flew a lot late at night because I was flying hundreds of people over oceans to various international destinations. You simply cannot fly international routes and not spend at least half of your time in the dark.

Even before my airline years, I spent quite a bit of time aviating in the evening. I flew an all-night canceled check run (kids, ask your parents about paper checks!) and flew most of my instrument students late at night.

The difference between night and day is it is generally darker at night. That is really the only difference. 

Your airplane does not care if it is flying at night or in the noontime bright. Aircraft performance does change because of variances in temperature, pressure altitude and the like, but they don’t fly through darkness any differently than they fly through bright daylight. 

We human pilots do operate differently at night than we do during the day. Our eyes and diurnal cycles have been designed and calibrated for use during the day. Our ancient forebears sought a cave or high tree limb at night because they knew that when it came to their eyesight, they had no chance against a nocturnal predator. 

The Federal Aviation Regulations recognize that flying at night is a different thing than daytime aviating. If you grab a copy of the regs, you will see that there are specific rules governing nighttime currency for pilots, but absolutely no specific daytime rules. I find that odd, but if I stopped and complained every time I thought that the FAA rules were weird, I’d never get anything done.

In the airline world that I just recently left, we never accounted for nighttime, or, for that matter, instrument time when it came to currency. We only had to follow the normal 90-day landing requirements. It was assumed that because we were flying transports all over the world that we were getting far more night time and actual instrument time than any of us wanted.


Reasons for and against flying at night

I can only think of two reasons you might think it is less safe to fly at night. One reason for non-instrument pilots is that at night it is hard—sometimes impossible—to see the horizon, making VFR flight a no-go. 

The second reason would be if you lost your only engine and had to do an emergency landing. It is very hard to find a safe place to land if you can’t see the ground or trees.

These are valid fears. It is true that the horizon is very hard to see on dark, moonless nights; open fields where you might set down a crippled airplane are also very hard to pick out. 

You certainly should never go flying if you think you would get disoriented, but if you consider all of the hazy and low-visibility daytimes you have flown, I think you’ll agree that the risk is about equal. The rule should be: never fly in any low-visibility situation—day or night—if you think you might lose the horizon.

It is true that if it is very dark and you lose your engine, you will have a difficult time picking your way between power lines and trees to make a successful engine-out landing. 

It is also true that there is often enough ambient light available at night because of the moon and other factors and you will probably do just fine. Know your route, know your limitations and plan accordingly.

Now that we have gotten the doom and gloom out of the way, let me tell you some of the ways that night flying is a lot better than sweating out a daytime flight:

• It is usually cooler and more comfortable at night. If you live in a part of the country that gets hot during the day, you will really enjoy the comfort of night flying. Your airplane will appreciate the lower temps and lower density altitude, too.

• Weather is usually nicer, and it is easier to spot. This is especially true during the time of year when there is a lot of afternoon convective activity. Also, thunderstorms are much easier to see at night than during the day because they have their very own internal strobes!

• Air Traffic Control can be more of a friend to you at night. The skies are less crowded, especially in congested areas, meaning you can get more “directs” and other favors out of your friendly controller. Warning areas, MOAs and the like are most likely “cold” during the night, meaning you can fly though them. 

• It is smoother at night. Well, it isn’t always smoother, but if you find bumpy air en route, it is much easier to get an altitude change to a smoother altitude. It is also true that your passengers are most likely asleep and are less apt to be whining and complaining if it gets bumpy.

• This is for you flight instructors out there: flight instruction is more efficient at night. You should consider advertising that you will do instrument flight instruction at night. Most of your potential students have jobs, and there are only so many available hours for instruction during a weekend. Why not fly your instrument students at night? During nighttime IFR training flights it is easier to get actual instrument time, and it is much easier to get the approach you want from your local approach controller because they have almost no other traffic to deal with. Trust me, CFIIs—this is a big moneymaker.

I hope you will try doing your next flight at night. Take along your instructor if it has been a while since you aviated in the dark, but don’t fear the darkness! 

If you have a couple of good flashlights, a good airplane and do a little prior planning, I guarantee that you will not only have a great flight, you will also unleash the potential of your aircraft to have almost twice the available hours to fly than you had before.