Shorter Days Mean Revisiting Night Flying Technique

It's Time to Reconsider Some of Those Seasonal Precautions

As the days slowly get shorter, it's worth considering that statistics prove flying after dark increases risk. While hazy, marginal weather may still provide a visible horizon during daylight hours, after dark, distinguishing the blend between sky and landscape becomes even more difficult. Even on a clear night, ground lighting can blend dangerously with starlight to confuse the eye. And another element that I rarely hear mentioned: locating switches, dials and other controls in a dark cockpit is that much more difficult, requires that much more attention and robs that much more concentration from intuitively flying the airplane by outside reference. Just when you can afford it least, you might be required to expend significantly more mental energy on cockpit tasks that are usually accomplished with just a glance.

Many pilots prefer not to fly at night, especially IFR in single-engine airplanes. There is no arguing that the options are fewer in the case of an engine failure. But there are advantages to flying after dark, too. The air is more likely to be smooth and cool with lower density altitudes. There is almost always less traffic. And the view on a starry, moonlit night can be spectacular. Some simple precautions can minimize the added risk.

First, prepare for shorter days by consciously choosing to make a few night flights before the Earth's orbital path forces you into it. A couple of relaxed familiarization flights around the patch are better than encountering the season's first night flying at the end of a long trip. And have a look at your logbook to ensure you are legally current. Next, include a check of your aircraft's lighting system in the preflight walkaround, and ensure that cabin lighting is in good working order. Flying into the sunset is not the time to discover that the interior or post lights illuminating the artificial horizon have burnt out bulbs. Fall is a good time to replace the batteries in your emergency flashlights, which should be easily accessible. Finally, consider using oxygen. Impaired night vision is one of the first symptoms of oxygen deficiency, and can be compromised after a few hours' flying as low as 6,000 feet. Especially as we get older, pilots can benefit from a toke or two of oxygen before undertaking a complex instrument approach at night.