How pilots fly at night. Everything you need to know before you take off in the dark.

by | FAQs for Beginners

Many pilots prefer to fly at night. Night air is smoother, without the rays of the sun warming the ground and causing turbulence. The colder air gives the engine more power, and the thick dense night sky gives the propeller and wings more bite making the aircraft feel more responsive. There are fewer airplanes flying, so transmissions to air traffic control can be unhurried and peaceful.

Without the sun’s passage across the sky, there is no glare in the cockpit regardless of the direction you choose to fly. With a well-illuminated cockpit, instrument scanning is easier.

Unlike the US, most countries don’t let pilots fly at night without additional training and rating. Some even ban night VFR flying, insisting all flights after dark are on an instrument flight plan. There is good reason for this: flying at night is different, and without the proper planning and precautions can be more dangerous. Here are some tips so you know how pilots fly at night.

What is night?

There are different regulations for night flight and student pilots need to log part of their flight training at night. Perhaps before we answer how pilots fly at night, we need to know exactly what night is and when those regulations come into effect.

Night

For most people, night is the period between sunset and sunrise. Changing a little every day, official sunset and sunrise times can usually be found in the weather app of many smartphones. However, the time between sunset and sunrise doesn’t count as night for pilots. Instead, there is an additional period of time called civil twilight. 

Civil twilight

Unlike people watching the sun set from the ground, pilots watching at altitude can actually see farther over the horizon. What this means is that when viewed from a cockpit seat, the sun sets a little later and rises a little earlier. The FAA calls this additional period of time between day and night civil twilight. How much later (or earlier if the sun is rising) depends on how high you’re flying.

Night for pilots

It would be impractical to make the length of civil twilight dependent on the pilot’s altitude. For the purpose of flight training and logging flight time at night, the FAA has determined that night for pilots begins thirty minutes after official sunset and ends thirty minutes before official sunrise.

Qualifications for night flight

To earn your private pilot license, you need to complete three hours of night flight. Your night training will include a cross-country flight of no less than 100 nautical miles in total length, separated by two points at least fifty nautical miles apart. In addition, you will need to complete at least ten takeoffs and ten landings, each to a full stop and taxi back (no touch-and-goes).

It goes without saying that these requirements are easier to complete during the Winter months, when the sun sets earlier, than during the Summer.

After you earn your certificate, you will need to have at least three takeoffs and landings within the last ninety days if you plan to carry passengers at night. Those takeoffs and landings that prove that you know how pilots fly at night can be completed by you solo in the traffic pattern, even if it has been more than ninety days since your last night flight.

How pilots fly at night: preflight planning

Preflight planning involves some different considerations for pilots flying at night. Flying at night can make it hard, if not impossible to view the horizon, especially if there is little or no moonlight. When planning your route, try to find a path that takes you over well-lit areas, that will orient you and help you navigate.

Instead of flying direct, plan your route to overfly as many airports as possible. Airports are easy to spot if with beacons to make them stand out at long distances. Of course your preflight planning should check to make sure that your destination is open and permits night arrivals. You’ll want to check NOTAMS to find out if there are any lights out of service, or any other issues that will complicate your arrival.

You’ll want to think about flying higher than you are used to. Altitude is your friend, and unless there’s a reason not to, such as airspace or clouds, having extra space between you and the ground can give you peace of mind.

To make sure you are relaxed and prepared, it’s a good idea to carry extra fuel when flying at night, to give you time finding your destination and orient yourself in the dark. Be prepared and don’t rely on your tablet either. Draw out your course on a paper sectional chart and keep it folded, ready for use. Without a wide horizon clearly visible at night it can be easy to get disoriented. If your tablet runs out of battery or has a connection problem, having your course marked on a sectional can make it easy to pick up your route with a flashlight instead of scrambling to figure out where you are.

How pilots fly at night: preflight inspection

If you ask how pilots fly at night, most will tell you it is not difficult. In some ways, because of the smooth air and lack of traffic, it can be easier and more relaxing. However, flying at night does require additional planning to ensure the flight is operated safely.

Unless you own your own airplane and can do it earlier in the day, you’re probably going to have to complete your preflight inspection at night. While the inspection itself remains the same, the flight school’s ramp will not be bright enough to do it without the help of a flashlight. Holding a flashlight while climbing a ladder and checking or sumping fuel and oil adds complexity and may make you wish you had another hand or two. You might want to wear a headlamp or clip a flashlight to the bill of your ballcap to make the inspection easier.

When you sump the fuel, you’ll find it hard to check for contaminants even while shining a flashlight into it. Instead, you’ll want to hold it agains a white background and shire a light through the side or bottom of the cup to check for water or other contamination.

By now you will have realized that having some flashlights in your flight bag is an important part of your night flight preparation. Pilots often joke that flashlights are simply a container for dead batteries, so you’ll want to make sure that you have new batteries, either in your flashlight or in your flight bag, or your flashlights are fully charged.

Takeoff and climb

Night flying etiquette demands judicious use of external lighting while taxiing. Keep your taxi light on (the equivalent of dipped headlamps) but avoid using strobes, and landing lights which are valuable when airborne but can blind pilots taxiing in the opposite direction.

The boy scouts motto is always prepared, and it’s especially true when pilots fly at night. Put a headlamp over your head and turn it on before taking the runway. If you lose your instrument panel lights on takeoff, you won’t be scrambling trying to find a flashlight while maneuvering close to the ground.

Even if you know your airport well, you should think about your take off and climb as it if is a semi-instrument departure. Plan your initial climb, turnout, and heading and recite them before you begin your roll. You don’t know what distractions you might have as you takeoff and you don’t want to be sorting it out at pattern altitude. Once you have climbed out of the airport environment, about three thousand feet above ground level, you can start your transition to cruise flight.

Cruise

By now it should be clear that the airplane doesn’t know whether it’s day or night. The difference between flying in daylight and at night depends on the pilot’s preparation. Without the sun shining on them, clouds disappear at night. They can’t be picked up with a landing light, so you need to be very watchful to make sure you aren’t about to fly into one. Sometimes the first indication you are in a cloud is when the strobe lights reflect into the cockpit, light suddenly finding yourself surrounded by lightning.

Flying at night can be peaceful. With smooth air and a sonorous engine purring ahead, too peaceful, perhaps! It can be helpful to ask air traffic control for flight following when you fly at night, to help you pick out other traffic and to keep you awake and to make sure you always have the current altimeter setting.

As you follow the well-lit route you planned earlier, look out for cities and urban areas and make sure they don’t appear to blink or flash. If city lights disappear, it means that there may be something between you and the lights: a cloud, an antenna, or rocks. When flying at night, altimeter settings become more important.

Summary

Here are some more things to consider when you think about how pilots fly at night. Be aware of your natural circadian rhythm. If you’re training for your license during the Summer months, your flight may be quite late. Be careful not to let fatigue affect your flying.Another thing to think about is what pilots call get-home-itis. While it can be easier to wait out any problems during the day time, the temptation to get home can be much stronger at night. It’s important to be sure that you are choosing decisions for the right reasons.

As you can see, flying at night can be beautiful and a great way to enjoy aviation. The key to a safe night fly is preparation, making sure that you have planned every part of your flight and packed everything you may need.

Even if you are an experienced pilot, you may want to spend some time flying with an instructor at night if you are new to an area. Landmarks that are easily recognized during the day can look different at night, and it’s easy to get disoriented.

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