I flew the U. S. Mail (Air Mail), at night for many years, and I was often asked, “How Do Pilots Fly At Night? ”
I was also asked by a woman, “how do you keep from hitting a mountain?” A perfectly logical question for someone with absolutely no knowledge of the wonderful world of flight, but it struck me and I laughed out loud.
My answer was, “I guess I’m just lucky!”
Let’s explore the navigation and lighting systems for all aircraft including helicopters that populate our skies at night.
How Do Pilots Fly At Night?
Airport lighting and signage guide an aircraft on the airport grounds. Night flights are predominately under Instrument Flight Rules relying on aircraft computers, indicators, and flight instrumentation. VFR, Visual Flight Rule flights rely on outside visual cues like lighting from nearby towns and the airport itself.
1. A Tour of Dark-Places.
Flying an aircraft at night can be disconcerting to the uninitiated, but having spent thousands of hours flying night freight, I learned to love it. And I can say that it’s a heck of a lot easier to find airports.
There is an art to night flying and instrument flying and when you fly 5 or 6 nights a week, you really get good at it.
Much of the flying is in weather anyway, so I became completely immersed in my scan and duties of each flight. Instrument flying is very easy, just the rules are hard!
My eyes never stop seeking any slight change in any instrument or movement outside the aircraft. This scan is constant, so there is no time for daydreaming.
For those venturing into the dark early on it’s best to stay close to home for a while doing touch-and-goes and flights close to the airport area. It is easy to become disoriented when you start out.
2. Nighttime Illusions.
There are some items to consider about disorientation at night. Your mind can and will play some dirty tricks on you and without knowing about them, you could get yourself into trouble unnecessarily.
Anyone who has experienced spatial disorientation will tell you, myself included, that it is a very uncomfortable feeling and it can kill you. It takes effort to overcome as well.
Consistent flying and good instrument skills will rectify any illusion, so if you just fly the airplane as you were taught you will live to fly another day.
The young lady in the video below, an instructor, examines all the big bad things that go bump in the night that flying can create. So please have a seat and watch.
Do remember that eyes are extremely light-sensitive, so avoid bright lights as long as possible before your flight. Your night vision is very important, so use caution before the flight.
3. Airport Lighting.
Taxiway lights are blue and sometimes have green centerline lights or at smaller airports a white centerline marking. This guides the aircraft from parking to the runway.
Runway lights are white and change slowly to red in the takeoff roll, allowing the pilot visual reference of the runway left.
VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator) or PAPI (Precision Approach Slope Indicator systems are visual landing aids at the approach end of the runway, which give the pilot visual cues for a stabilized approach.
These are easy because when they are all red, you are low, and all-white, you are too high. If you maintain half white (on top) and half red (bottom) you are on the glide path.
4. Enroute Systems.
Many aircraft are equipped with GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System), which warns the pilot that they are too close to the terrain.
Also, weather radar is available with ADS-B, (Automatic Dependent System Broadcast), which paints a picture of the significant weather to avoid.
In addition, aircraft may have TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System), which as the name implies will warn of conflicting traffic to avoid.
Instruments for use in landing are the faithful ILS, (Instrument Landing System), which guides the aircraft to the runway threshold for landing.
Most aircraft these days are GPS (Global Positioning System) equipped, which can also guide the aircraft en route and landing.
Be sure to brief yourself well including night take-off and landing requirements. You can brief from the Airplane and Flying Handbook here.
Official night time is one-hour past sunset and one hour before sunrise and you must log at least 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop within the preceding 90 days.
I always like to keep my mind fresh by reading through pertinent regulations because I am responsible for the flight.
Flying at night is safe and easy as well as being far lower in traffic numbers and the majority of the flights experience much less turbulence. That alone is worth it!
Today’s technology allows for extremely safe navigation and warning systems to make flying anytime safer.
Remember, FLY SAFE.