When I was a USAF student pilot, (1969-70), my T-38 instructor, Mike Alley and I flew cross country to Hill AFB, Utah. I flew an ILS approach, and then cancelled IFR and flew towards my home town of Tooele (Too-Ella), 35 nm SSE of Hill. I buzzed Main Street at a legal 1,000 feet AGL and soon we were in Tooele’s foothills. Mike told me to be careful. I assured him that I was “raised in these hills” and he replied, “Yes, but you weren’t raised here going 300 knots!” That was a sobering admonition. We likewise should exercise care when flying our Mooneys at night. We’re going fast, we can’t see very much, and it’s such a rare event, because 95% of the average pilot’s flying is logged during the day. Some pilots don’t like to fly at night. I get it. Statistically, night flying increases the accident risk by a factor of 5 and that alone can play with our emotions. Nobody wants to do something risky. However, I contend that with proper training, attention to detail and adequate planning, pilots can be as confident at night as they are in the day. Pilots can change the odds in their favor. The Night Flying Boogie Man is still there, but his influence can be diminished significantly!
I love to fly at night, but I do a lot of study before I do it. I especially enjoy it during the summer, because I can avoid turbulence. Furthermore, the views are spectacular, especially around well lit cities, and the sky is less crowded. However, all the romance of night flying comes with some dangers. It’s hard to see weather and that’s why half of all the VFR into IMC (non-VFR weather) accidents have occurred at night.
The moon can be a nice illuminator, but even a full moon only gives 1/500,000,000 the light that the sun gives. Some moons are less helpful than others. For instance, a half moon gives 10% of a full moon’s light and a crescent offers a mere 1%. If the moon is low, there is even less light. With little to no light, it’s hard to see mountains and other obstacles. TV/Radio antennae, although topped by a red or white light flashing light, can be hard to see and their guy wires are invisible!
What Can You do to Mitigate Possible Dangers • Be sure that your charts are current and always check NOTAMs before flying. • Pick a high cruising altitude. This will give you more time to troubleshoot and a greater gliding distance, possibly to an airport. • Choose a route which takes you over or near several other airports along the way, even if it means the route is a little longer. If the engine should fail, you’ll have an airport underneath you or within gliding distance. • Use VFR flight following or go IFR, even if in VFR conditions. In case of engine of an emergency, ATC will be a monumental help, vectoring you to a good landing spot. • If airfields are scarce, file the “other” IFR – “I Follow Roads” and let the headlights illuminate the highway. A pilot flying in New Mexico at night, safely landed his Cessna on I-10 between DMN and LRU.
If the Engine Fails The FAA recommends that if you know the condition of the terrain, aim for the unlighted portion. If you know there is a nice level field underneath you, by all means use it. What happens if you don’t know the condition? You may be aiming for a forest, when a perfectly lit street is close by and a better choice. Landing close to public access is important because you may needed medical help after landing. Some say, that “If you’re ever faced with a forced landing at night, turn the landing lights on to see the landing area. If you don’t like what you see, turn’ em back off.” Seriously, if you do see obstacles, you may be able to avoid them.
Fly the Airplane! Never give up and continue to fly the airplane. Bob Hoover said, “If you’re faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.” Maintain a good margin of safely above stall speed all the way to the ground. Bob Martens, aviation speaker, consultant and safety expert, added, “I’ve been to many aircraft accident scenes. I’ve evaluated hundreds and hundreds of accidents, and pilots are not killed when they fly their airplane to the ground under control. They are killed when they stall an airplane into the ground.”
July 13, 1999. A single engine plane rests on a green after an emergency landing on the golf course at the Boca Raton Resort and Golf Course in Boca Raton, Fla., Tuesday night,. The plane landed between two sand traps. Pilot Carlos Claudio, 37, of Coconut Creek, Fla., walked away from the 8:45 p.m. crash with minor injuries. (Sun Sentenial)
A Columbia 400 with a blown engine landed safely at Altoona, Pennsylvania’s airport at night. Hear the story HERE. Hoping things will work out is not an alternative! Know the challenges in your local area and have a plan before you leave the ground. Always consider alternatives with guaranteed outcomes. Remember that “hoping” things will work out is not an alternative! No doubt about it, night flight requires more care and planning. Develop your own strategies for night flight and enjoy the view!