Flying on a clear summer night is awesome. No turbulence, not a whole lot of traffic. Night flying is as good as it gets. I’m sure most of us have great memories of flying at night. I know I do. However, flying at night also presents its unique challenges, primarily because we can’t see stuff. Because of this limitation, we are more prone to getting distracted and making bad decisions. A wise pilot will take initiative and plan ahead to avoid as many of these distractions as possible. Here are a few ideas to make your night flying safer and more enjoyable.
Bring at least one good flashlight. When most of us decide to go flying at night, we grab a little light that has been designed badly. We struggle with the flashlight the entire flight, swear that we will never use it again, and then forget to fix the issue before our next night flight. A good flashlight will help you with the preflight, with reading checklists/maps, and can also serve as a backup instrument light. Red lights are great for preserving night vision, but most aircraft today have lots of bright light coming from the GPS system, strobes, etc… Red lights can make it hard to read, so I usually prefer white. I personally use a Petzl Tactikka XP. It’s not the cheapest, but it’s incredible both for preflight and for reading stuff in the cockpit. Some pilots choose a light that avoids glare such as a dim light or a colored light that can also be turned into a brighter light for things like the exterior preflight inspection. But beware of colored lights making it difficult to see like colors. A red light will make it hard to see anything written in red ink, etc.
Stay awake. Sleep in the morning of a night flight. According to the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), any time you have not rested for eight hours the night before a flight, your risk of fatigue increases significantly. Once I even had a customer fall asleep at the controls! It was awesome and funny, but only because I was there to wake them up. Being awake for many hours before a flight also increases risk. When the flight is more than twelve hours after we wake up, the risk assessment chart I use says that our risk goes from green to yellow. In late June of 2013 sunset will not occur until 9:17PM. Night landings for pilot currency requirements are not loggable until 10:17PM. How many of y’all normally wake up within 12 hours of 10:17PM? Don’t answer that.
Good distractions also help us to stay awake at night. Don’t just stare out the window and check the gauges on a long cross-country. Challenge yourself. Get out your sectional and try to find all the little towns and roads. Get flight following from air traffic control. Call a Flight Service Station (FSS) and make sure there aren’t any new Notices to Airmen (NOTAMS). Call Flight Watch and file a Pilot Report. Hold a $100 bill out the window. Doing extra things is not only useful in keeping us awake, it can also make us better, safer pilots.
As you prepare for your next night flight, be sure to bring a good flashlight with back up batteries and/or an extra flashlight. Plan your day so that you’re properly rested. During your flight, be sure to stay alert by keeping yourself busy and challenging your skills. Doing these things will help ensure the safety and comfort of your enjoyable night flying experience.