The Art of Flying at Night

by HPA · February 23, 2012

Constellations from the Air

By Hank Gibson, Gold Seal, CFI, CFII, MEI

The Bright Side of Night Flying

The Moon

Most nights, and I emphasize most because this is not the case every night, you’re going to find very smooth, non-turbulent conditions. The sun has set, so there isn’t much heat rising up from the earth anymore, lessening those dreaded afternoon bumps in the summer time. Sometimes at night, turbulent conditions will still be present due to wind shear and thunderstorms, but, like I said, most of the time, you’ll get smooth air.

Down here Texas way, it gets awful hot during the day in the summer time, making those environmental systems work pretty hard. If you have air conditioning, you’re probably sweating some; if you don’t, you’re praying your vents somehow shoot out more air so you don’t drown in sweat. The solution? Go up after dark. Albeit, in the ultra humid south, the humidity doesn’t disappear, but the actual temperature usually drops, making life much more pleasant at altitudes.

Flying at night alleviates the blinding glare of the sun. In some places, you’ll have haze that sticks around after dark, but otherwise, as long as there aren’t low clouds hanging around, the visibility is unmatched. Traffic is easier to spot since position lights and strobe lights are easier seen against the black backdrop. In a low wing, the stars are gorgeous (hint: great for a date! “Hey honey, take a look up at the sky.” She’ll think you’re awesome!).

The Dark Side of Night Flying

After hearing all that, then let’s go up and hit the black skies! Not so fast. There is a reason the FAA dedicates an entire section to night flight in the Airplane Flying Handbook and portions of the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge as well as the AIM. It can be dangerous if you aren’t properly trained and don’t have a lot of experience. I don’t recommend VFR pilots flying at night unless you have an instrument rating or you have a lot of night dual with an instructor.

The body acts a little funny at night. As previously mentioned, in chapter ten of the Airplane Flying Handbook, the FAA talks about several aeromedical factors that occur at night. The first is letting your eyes get adjusted to nighttime. Warning: I’m going to get a little medically technical here for a second. Bare with me.

The human eye has both cones and rods, both serving different functions. The cones detect color, details, and faraway objects. The rods, on the other hand, are used for peripheral vision, seeing something out of the corner of your eye. The rods are what handle night vision.

The Eye

If you look at a diagram of the eye, the rods are not directly behind the pupils, therefore making off center viewing during night flight very important. From personal experience, ATC has told me I had traffic in front of me at night and I couldn’t see it. Once I glanced off to the side, it magically appeared. So, this stuff is true!

The rods also need time to adjust to seeing at night. Once it gets dark, the pupils dilate to try and receive more light. After about 10 minutes, the cones have adjusted to the dark, but the rods need approximately 30 minutes to become fully adjusted. According to the FAA, once adjusted, the rods are 100,000 times more sensitive at this point! When you do go flying at night, let your eyes become adjusted to the dark before going blasting off into the great blackness. One disadvantage to Technically Advanced Aircraft (TAA) is the fact that we have the PFD and MFD lighting up our cabin, partially destroying our night vision. The FAA also recommends supplemental oxygen use above 5,000 feet at night to aid in night vision.

There are three night illusions the FAA talks about in chapter 15 of the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge. Autokinesis is caused by staring at a stationary flashing light for too long. After a while, it appears to move, causing a pilot to mistake it for an airplane. Solution? Don’t fixate on any one object and continue scanning. The false horizon illusion occurs when the normal horizon is hard to see. City lights and bright stars can cause this, as well as flying over a body of water. Since the water is dark below you, the lights on the shore can be mistaken for the horizon, causing the pilot to descend too low and possibly crash into the water. This is what happened to John F. Kennedy, Jr. Solution? Don’t fly over open water at night, or, more practically, get an instrument rating.

Landing at night

The final illusion occurs during landings. Any element that causes some form of obscuration can cause a pilot to fly a lower than normal approach, be it rain, a dark runway, or the famed “black hole approach” (unlighted terrain on final leading up to a well lit runway). On the flip side, bright lights, steep terrain and wide runways can cause pilots to think they are higher than normal.

It is very good to have a healthy respect for the dark. If you are a VFR pilot, get some good experience at night with an instructor before setting out on your own. The best thing to do would just get your instrument rating, making you much safer overall.

How it Started

One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.

Training Begins

It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.

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The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.

First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).


At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.

Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.

Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.

In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.

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