It’s the time of year when you are more likely to be flying in the dark. Objectively, it shouldn’t make much difference, especially if you’re flying IFR—just fly the procedures and keep your eyes on the instruments, and you should be all right. The record shows, however, that the rate of accidents at night is wildly out of proportion to the percentage of flying done in the dark. What can we do to mitigate the added risk?
Countering the argument that “the airplane doesn’t know if it’s light or dark out,” the record clearly shows a greater rate of aircraft accidents at night. The AOPA Air Safety Institute says that while “… only 19.2 percent of daytime accidents resulted in fatalities…, over one-third (34.6 percent) of all night accidents were fatal … At night, nearly half of the accidents in VMC were fatal … compared to nearly three-fourths of night IMC accidents.”
Bad Is Worse At Night
At night, what might otherwise be inconveniences can become life-threatening emergencies. Early in my flying career this happened to me:
I was tasked to fly a Beech Baron from its base in northern Kansas down to Wichita. I’d never flown this particular airplane before; I was picking it up to fly it to the shop for the Baron’s single throw-over controls to be replaced with dual control wheels, so I could provide transition training to the thirty-year-old Baron’s new owner.
I hitched a ride up with a friend in a Piper Warrior. After completing a preflight inspection of the Baron and its logbooks, I waved my friend homeward. We’d had stronger-than-expected headwinds on the way up, and it also took a lot of time for the FBO to find the Baron’s keys for me, so my departure was delayed enough to make it dark before I completed the hour-long flight back home.
I fired up the piston twin and took off, VFR, heading southward. About a half-hour out of Wichita, I noticed a thin layer of ground fog developing. ATIS at Wichita’s Mid-Continent (now Eisenhower National) Airport reported IFR conditions, but well above minimums. So, I called Center and picked up an IFR clearance in the air.
On vectors to intercept the localizer for the ILS, as it was getting dark, I turned on the instrument panel lights. Nothing happened. It’s hard to check panel lights for operation in daylight, but I later learned a faulty rheostat prevented them from coming on when I needed them. I’d not gone out of my way to shade the instruments and check that the panel lights worked before I took off, even knowing I’d be flying at night. Happily, I had a couple of working flashlights with which to see the instruments during approach set-up and landing.
There were a lot of “I should’ve done this” or “I should not have done that” lessons from this experience, lessons I’ve absorbed and integrated since that time. As a result, I’ve come up with some techniques for minimizing the risk for night flight.
Night Safety Do’s And Don’ts
Fly at night without a thorough weather and NOTAMs briefing. No exceptions. Beware of marginal VFR reports, converging temperature/dewpoint spreads, temperature inversions, and reports of winds blowing off large bodies of water. Each can lead to rapidly deteriorating ceilings or visibilities you can’t detect visually at night before you’re in them.
Make a night flight immediately after airplane maintenance or an annual inspection. A post-maintenance flight should be a day, VMC shakedown.
Fly at night the first time you fly a specific airplane. Until you fly it yourself, you don’t know what works and what doesn’t.
Fly at night in an airplane you’ve not flown recently.
Fly at night if you have any uncorrected electrical glitches.
Fly past a good airport if you have a problem at dusk or in full darkness.
Fly to the limit of the airplane’s fueled range at night. Landing and refueling options are reduced after hours, and you may need to fly farther to make it to an alternate airport.
Fly after a full day of work unless you get some real rest before departure. You need to know you won’t be too fatigued, not only at takeoff, but also at the end of your night flight.
Plan a night VFR trip as if you were planning for IFR, including routes and minimum altitudes for each flight segment, alternate airports, and added fuel reserves.
Use checklists, even when you are comfortable in the airplane. Complacency can be worse at night, when it’s harder to see.
Actively monitor electrical load and alternator/generator output throughout the flight. Divert and land at the nearest suitable airport at the first sign of an electrical problem.
Crosscheck instruments and their power source indicators frequently, and land quickly if a failure occurs.
Check “fuel remaining” for your destination regularly. Divert and land at the nearest suitable airport if fuel reserves drop below limits.
Perform a “blind cockpit check” before takeoff. While sitting in the cockpit, be able to touch any indicator or control without looking. Develop this level of comfort with the airplane before you fly it at night.
Practice emergency checklists. It’s even harder to use a printed emergency checklist in the dark.
Cancel any night flight when you are not completely confident both you and the airplane are airworthy.
Disorientation in the Dark
The common practice of taking off and picking up an IFR clearance in the air can be extremely hazardous in the dark, especially in marginal conditions. Here’s an example from the NTSB:
The pilot of a multiengine airplane contacted tower controllers to obtain an IFR clearance for a nighttime departure. Marginal visual flight rules conditions prevailed, with ceilings 1,000 broken, 1,700 overcast, and six miles’ visibility. The controller was not able to access the flight plan information and requested that the pilot provide him the full flight plan information by radio. The pilot asked if it would be easier to take off under VFR and pick up a clearance in the air. The controller replied that if the pilot departed VFR he would only need the aircraft type information and his requested direction of flight. The pilot elected to depart VFR.
Radar data showed the airplane climbed to about 2,200 feet MSL (about 1,680 AGL). At this altitude, and when the airplane was about three nautical miles from the airport, it began a descending left turn, followed by a right turn, losing about 700 feet of altitude during this time. The airplane then began a climbing left turn. During the turn, the airplane initially climbed about 400 feet, descended about 400 feet, and then climbed again about 1,300 feet before reaching its peak altitude of 2,800 MSL. The final recorded radar point was 0.1 nm from the accident site, and the calculated descent rate between the final two radar points was more than 5,000 feet per minute.
Post-accident examinations of the airframe, engines, and propellers, revealed no evidence of mechanical malfunctions or failures that would have precluded normal operation. The flight path, which was not consistent with the intended course, the airplane’s repeated climbs and descents, and the loss of airplane control and high-speed impact are consistent with the known effects of spatial disorientation. Based on this evidence, it is likely that the pilot experienced spatial disorientation after the airplane inadvertently entered clouds at night, which led to his failure to maintain airplane control.
Being a good IFR pilot who flies IFR most or all of the time does not mean you’ll be good at flying in marginal conditions at night. In fact, flying without the “comfort” of flying filed routes and altitudes may be far riskier at night—additionally so in marginal conditions. Unexpectedly losing visual references at night while flying in unpracticed and uncomfortable conditions can be extremely disorienting. It’s best to get your clearance on the ground before taking off, even if that means you need to re-file your entire flight plan.
Night Risk Management
There’s a lot more to know about night flight, including a good section in the Airplane Flying Handbook (FAA-H-8030-3A), Chapter 10. It may not be the norm for pilots of multiengine and turbine pilots to review this most basic of flying texts. But, reviewing and using that knowledge will help you manage the risks of flying at night.