Flying at Night (Private Pilot)

Flying at night can be very exceeding and rewarding, especially during evening flights and watching the sunset or even early morning seeing the sunrise. They can also, be very enjoyable, even romantic taking a friend, even a girlfriend or ladies taking your boyfriend, or your spouse up and flying somewhere for a nice dinner.

FAR Part 1 defines night as the time between evening civil twilight and the begging of morning civil twilight, so what does that mean? Well, when the center of the sun is 6⁰ below the horizon, this marks evening.

But, in FAR Part 61.57, night is referred to 1 hour after sunset and 1 hour before sunrise. It also says that no pilot can act as pilot in command (PIC) of an aircraft carrying passengers unless he or she has made three takeoffs and three landing to a full stop within the preceding 90 days.

 

Seeing at Night

Our eyes work different at night than during the day. Deep inside the eyes are tiny “rods” and “cones”. The rods, more so than the cones, are what gives us our night vision if using off center viewing rather than trying to see something with your peripheral vision.

During the day, objects are best viewed looking straight at it, unlike during the night when light enters the eye at angle creating a blind spot in the center of vision.

A good rule of thumb is it takes approximately 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to darkness, depending on the individual. Also, consider using a red flashlight, while conducting your preflight.

(More information on red lights later in the lesson).

TIPS:

  • Do not wear sunglasses after sunset, it impairs your night vision.

  • Try to force your eyes to view off center by scanning the area.

  • Move your eyes slower while scanning, than you would at night.

 

Using O2 at Night

The FAA recommends that pilots use supplemental oxygen (O2) while flying at night above 5,000 feet measured sea level (MSL). Oxygen helps those tiny rods in your eyes to work better, which allows you to have better night vision.

 

Night Flying Equipment

When flying at night it is important to always carry a flashlight, why?

It helps you visually, during your preflight inspection. In addition, being able to read sectional charts, and anything you need to write down during flight operations.

Flashlights:

Care a good LED flashlight that has the ability to switch between both white, red and perhaps blue lights. LED lights last longer than incandescent bulbs, so you do not have to worry carrying extra lightbulbs, in case one burns out. Remember to always carry extra batteries.

The flashlight should be large enough, and kept in a place that is easily accessible. 

When conducting your preflight inspection use the white light for better viewing of the airplanes interior and outside components.

In flight, use the red light to read sectional charts, approach plates, taxi diagrams and anything you need to write down.

The red light also saves your night vision.

Caution TIP:

BE AWARE, when using the red light during flight and using a VFR sectional, be aware that the red light will change the color of curtain features and symbols on a VFR sectional chart.

 

Aircraft lights

For aircraft to be legal to fly at night under VFR conditions, they must have the daytime required equipment plus a few other equipment items per FAR Part 91.205(c). We like to use the acronym “FLAPS” to help remember the night required equipment.

  • F – Fuses (One spare set. Only if the aircraft is equipped with fuses, otherwise aircraft use circuit breakers)

  • L – Landing light (Only if flying for hire. But, recommend for use at all times)

  • A – Anti-collision light

  • P – Position lights

  • S – Source of electricity (Alternator, Generator)

Aircraft are required per Part 91.209 to have a functional anti-collision light system to be legal to fly during, night hours. This includes a flashing or rotating beacon and position lights. The position lights are arranged so that a red light is mounted on the left wingtip, a green light is mounted on the right wingtip, and a white light is on the tail of the aircraft.

With the arrangement of this lights, it helps determine the direction an aircraft is moving.

Landing lights are used for taxing, takeoff, and landing, they also can be used to help other pilots see aircraft at night. It is recommend to turn on the landings within 10 miles of an airport and below 10,000 feet.

Airport Lighting

​Airport lighting is used at the majority of airports for night operation. Airports use a standardized lighting system so they are all the same, especially for runway and taxiway lighting. In this section we will discuss the lighting system.

  • Airport Beacons

  • Approach Light Systems

  • Runway & Taxiway lights

  • Control of Airport Lights

Airport Beacons:

​Beacon lights are used to help identify an airport and the type of airport at night. 

  • The beacons are operated from dusk until dawn, but may also be operated during the day if the ceiling is less than 1,000 feet and or the ground visibility is less than 3 statute miles (VFR minimums).

There is no requirement for an airport to turn on the beacon,

if the weather is below VFR minimums.

Airport beacon lights are effective from 1° – 10° above the horizon,

but can also be seen from miles away and from high altitudes.

There are a few different combination of light colors to identify the type of airport.

  • Civilian land airport - flashing white and green

  • Military - two quick flashing white with a green flash

  • Heliport - flashing white, yellow and green

  • Water airport (seaport) - flashing white and yellow

Approach Light Systems:

Approach lights are used to transition from an instrument approach to a visual approach, and are used to aid pilots during a night VFR approach to landing. There are four types of systems, two of which are the main styles of approach light systems that you as a pilot will see in the majority of your flying, they are:

Visual Approach Slope Indicator (VASI) system gives a glide path, using a red and white light for both day and night approaches, and allows for safe obstacle clearance. There are two different designs of the VASI, 2-bar and the 3-bar.

  • 2-bar VASI has a near and far light bar

  • 3-bar VASI has a near, middle and far light bar

Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) system is similar to that of the VASI, the difference is a PAPI system is set up in a row. The PAPI is located on the left side of the runway. During the day the PAPI can be seen four miles out, and at night ten miles out.

Approach lighting systems can become very helpful for VFR pilots flying at night.

Runway/Taxiway Lighting

Runway lighting is used for the safe operation of landing and taking off at night. Runway lights are arranged differently depending on how complex the runway is.

REIL (Runway End Identifier Lights):

These are used to provide rapid identification of the approach end of a particular runway. Pair of synchronized flashing light on both sides of the runway threshold.

Runway Edge Lights:

Runway edge lights are used to identify the edge of the runway during night and low visibility operation. Runway edge lights are always white. Except, instrument runways which have yellow lights the last 2,000 feet of the runway.

Lights marking the end of runway are red as seen by a departing aircraft. On the approach end of the runway are green lights indicating the threshold to approaching or landing aircraft.

In-Runway Lighting:

Runway centerline lighting system (RCLS) – lights alongside the centerline on some precision approach runways are white lights. The next 2,000 feet light alternate white and red. The last 1,000 feet all centerline lights a red.

Taxiway Lights:

Taxiway edge lights are to identify the edge of the taxiway during night and low visibility operation.

Taxiway lights are blue in color.

 

Some taxiways have taxiway centerline lights, which are green.

At some airports there are taxiway centerline lead on and off lights, which are the same color for both directions. These lights are in-pavement lights alternating green and yellow, starting with a green light, from the runway centerline. They are to warn pilots and vehicles that they are within the runway ILS critical area.

Control of Airport Lights:

​At towered airports ATC controls the airport lighting.

At some non-towered airports, lights may be on a timer. Other non-towered airports the pilot controls the lighting, which is called Pilot control lighting (PCL). Pilot controlled lighting is done by a specific radio frequency, and clicking the microphone.

All runway and taxiway lights stay illuminated for approximately 15 minutes.​

Flying Around at Night

When flying around at night, all pilots should exercise caution and tighter safety practices. It can be hard to see clouds and low visibility areas. An indication of visibly becoming low is the city lights will begin to disappear.

Emergencies at Night:

Engine failure while flying over a large body of water such as, the ocean, Great Lakes or even between islands like the Bahamas or Hawaii. It does not sound very comforting and can be very stressful and scary, especially when it is over water at night. Another potentially hazardous part when flying over water, is the water and sky blind together giving no horizon reference. Especially on nights when there is no moon light shining on the ocean.

A couple of good practice s to keep in mind, in case of an emergency especially engine failure is to always be in communication with ATC. Being in communication from the start of the flight is easier, than trying to squawk 7700 and trying to make an initial contact with ATC or on the UNICOM.

Also, during the engine failure the FAA recommends to land in a location with no lights, but close to public areas. You would think that trying to land on the interstate or large road is a better choice, but it is not. Power lines, street signs and lights are hard to see at night than during the daytime.

 

References

Private Pilot ACS PA.Xl.A.K1 – PA.Xl.A.K5

Airplane Flying Handbook FAA-H-8083-3 (Ch. 10) 

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