Night flying is very different than flying during the day. Familiar daytime landmarks become dark and hidden from view while the lights along the roads and in the cities become very clear. Pilots also need a different set of skills and knowledge to fly at night. They need to be aware of how their eyes work at night, the supplies they’ll need, the equipment on the aircraft and how to navigate at night.
During the day, our eyes see best in the center of our vision. At night, the reverse is true. This is due to the makeup of the eye itself. Our eyes consist of cones and rods. The cones are located in the center of the eye while the rods are located on the outside of the eye. During the day, both the cones and rods help us see objects and detect movement. At night, the cones become ineffective while the rods become the basis of our vision.
The rods in our eyes take a minimum of 30 minutes to fully acclimate to the dark. It is recommended that pilots take the full 30 minutes to allow their eyes to fully acclimate to the darkness and not go back into bright light or expose their eyes to bright light.
If you are exposed to bright light either right before or during the flight, close one eye to maintain your night vision in that eye. It is also recommended to avoid smoking prior to a night flight as smoking affects vision negatively, and as always, do not drink or take drugs prior to your night flight or any flight.
Supplies For Night Flying
The supplies for a night flight are very similar to those needed during the day. You’ll need your Pilots Operating Handbook, a fuel strainer, headset and aeronautical charts. You will also need a flashlight with both a white and red light. Flashlights with both white and red lights can be bought at flight shops or at online pilot supply stores.
The white light is used during the preflight check to check the exterior of the aircraft. The red light is used inside the plane during the flight. This is because a red light will not affect night vision. Though, it is wise to remember that when using a red light the red lines on aeronautical charts will not be visible.
In order to take off at night, the aircraft has to have a specific set of equipment, and all of that equipment must be operational in order to depart the runway. The aircraft must have working instrument lights, a battery for electrical power, spare fuses, a flashing or rotating beacon, a red light on the left wingtip, a green light on the right wingtip and a white light on the tail. If all those lights are present and operational, the airplane has the required lights to depart the runway.
In addition to the lights, the aircraft must have an operational altimeter, attitude indicator and heading indicator. Most airplanes have those instruments and more. I’d also recommend making sure your compass is set correctly and the airspeed indicator is working correctly as well as the NAVAIDS.
Navigation at Night
VFR night flying is very similar to IFR flying. The ground references that you use during the day will not be visible. You won’t be able to see the house you turn base leg at or the hill that marks where the airport resides. Instead, you’ll have to rely on your navigation charts and the airport lights and runway lights.
Navigation charts are wonderful tools for remaining oriented at night. The cities on the charts are marked in a similar pattern to the lights in the city. This means that if the city looks like a square, hexagon or circle on the chart, the lights of the city will also resemble that shape. Roads also become very easy to see at night due to the lights on the sides of the road. In other words, your chart is going to become an invaluable tool during your night flight.
Night flying requires a higher level of alertness during the day. This is due to the change in visual landmarks, human vision and the night itself. It is incredibly important to continually scan the windscreen for other aircraft and deteriorating weather conditions.
Other aircraft can be spotted and their positions determined due to their position lights. If you see a red light, a green light and a white light, the aircraft is headed towards you. If you see a white light, then the aircraft is headed away from you. The other aircraft’s position is dependent on which lights you see.
Deteriorating weather conditions are also a concern at night. At night, it is nearly impossible to see clouds and fog. The only way to determine deteriorating conditions is to remain vigilant. If the stars disappear then you are in cloudy/ overcast conditions. If the lights start disappearing below you, you could be flying in to fog or low lying clouds. In both scenarios, you’ll want to get an updated weather briefing and turn the plane to avoid flying into IFR conditions.
Remember, when flying at night, remain vigilant, protect your night vision, use your charts, and continually scan the windscreen for other aircraft and deteriorating weather conditions.