Night Flight: Considerations Before Flying at Night

Night Flight: Considerations Before Flying at Night

By Josh Page, CFI

Flying never gets old to me. I love the views and the feel of flying, but nothing
compares to flying at night. I live in Tampa Bay, so flying at night means going
over beautiful bright cities like St. Petersburg, Tampa, Orlando, and more. If I go
further southeast, it allows for a very different experience flying over rural areas
where it’s hard to distinguish the ground from the sky because of the darkness all

There are some important considerations to keep in mind before going flying at
night. Let’s take a look at a few of those things:

Currency vs Proficiency
You’ve probably heard the terms currency and proficiency. Currency speaks of
meeting the minimum legal requirements — in other words, am I legal to fly?
Proficiency takes it a step further and speaks of competency and safety.
Although you may meet the legal requirements to fly, are you safe and competent
to fly alone? This is a very important consideration before flying at night. There
have been too many accidents at night where pilots have gotten disoriented and
sadly crashed.

What is Night Time?
Let’s define night first. Night flying can be logged from the end of evening civil
twilight to the beginning of morning civil twilight. If you’re not sure what time that
is, just google your location and “civil twilight”. It’s generally half an hour after
sunset to half an hour before sunrise. If you’re flying in that timeframe, you can
log night hours. However, in order for your landing to count as a night landing, it
will need to take place an hour after sunset to an hour before sunrise.

Carrying Passengers at Night?
The FAA has a rule about currency for carrying passengers at night in an effort to
ensure competency and safety. A pilot carrying passengers at night must have
completed three take offs and three full stop landings within the past 90 days
during a period from one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise. In other
words, it needs to have been dark dark when the pilot completed those three
take offs and landings. It’s a serious matter flying at night — how much more
taking up friends and family at night!

Lights on?
Anti-collision lights need to remain on during the day or night, but there are a
couple more lights that need to be on at night. Position lights are the red and
green lights on the wing tips (always red on the left, green on the right). From
sunset to sunrise, those need to be turned on. If your plane is for hire (in other words if it’s being rented), you will also need to have a landing light — this is the
bright light that shines straight ahead usually from the nose of the plane or from
the leading edge of one of the wings. The landing light helps to illuminate the
runway environment ahead as you taxi or approach to land, and it makes you
much easier to spot by other aircraft flying at night.

Safety Considerations
It’s interesting to consider that many countries require a separate rating to fly at
night, but in America, the FAA only requires three hours of night training. Is that
really enough to be a safe and prepared pilot in the darkness of the night? I
always recommend my students to get more night flying experience with an
instructor or another experienced pilot before flying alone at night. It’s not worth
the risk! One of the common dangers with flying at night is becoming disoriented. If you’re in an area away from city lights, it can become impossible to really discern the ground from the sky by just looking out the window. This is why it’s so important to trust your instruments.

There are also several illusions that can occur at night. For example, a pilot might
mistake a low cloud layer ahead for the horizon leading them to align with an
incorrect horizon and resulting in a dangerous attitude — this is called a false
horizon. Have you ever stared at a light at night long enough to see it appear to
move even though it’s obviously stationary? This is another night illusion called
autokinesis. When pilots stare at a light ahead against the dark backdrop of the
sky, it will appear to move. The disoriented pilot will then begin making
movements to avoid what really isn’t even moving. It’s important to keep your
eyes moving in your scan and not to stare at one stationary spot. It’s easy to
become disoriented at night if you’re not extremely careful.

Night Vision
Did you know that our vision is different at night than it is in the daytime? At
night, we use more of our “rods” than our “cones” in our viewing. The rods are
located away from the rear center of the eyeball, so this makes off-center viewing
(or using your peripheral) more effective than looking directly at something. Think
of this as having a blind spot in the center of your viewing at night! It’s also
important to note that it takes about 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the
darkness at night, and it's recommended to avoid light for 30 minutes before
flying at night!

A lot to consider when flying at night, huh? There’s nothing more important than
being safe and prepared when behind the controls of an airplane. I hope you get
to enjoy many breathtaking night flights! Just remember these considerations
before going up!

By Josh Page, CFI

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