Eye of Experience #18:
The recent accident in which JFK Jr., his wife and her sister died focused much attention on the relative safety of flying VFR at night. Certainly, VFR at night is different from flying the same trip during the day, but how different is it? Is it unsafe? No, answers AVweb's Howard Fried — night VFR simply requires a bit more planning and a clear understanding of those differences.
Some time ago an AVweb subscriber, Ms. Annette Wright, requested a column on the subject of night VFR. We here in the U.S. are fortunate in that there is no specific rating required for a pilot to fly VFR at night. However, this situation does not prevail throughout the rest of the world. In fact, in many countries an instrument rating is required for night flying. In Ms. Wright's country, Australia, there is a specific rating for night VFR and this is as it should be. Much of the countryside in Australia is very desolate and largely unpopulated. Therefore, there are few, if any, ground references to aid the pilot. On the other hand, over well-populated areas, with lots of roads and highways with a steady flow of traffic, it becomes easy.
VFR at night can be among the most pleasant flying of all. When the moon and stars are out and the wind is calm, as you drone along you experience a peace that just cannot be described. Also, the air is usually smoother at night, so you're not as likely to get a bumpy ride. And another good thing about flying VFR at night is the fact that traffic is much easier to spot. All airplanes that fly at night have rotating beacons, or strobes (most have strobes today), and, of course this makes them highly visible. Knowing which wing has the red and which has the blue running (or navigation) light and the fact that at the very rear end of the airplane there is a white light makes it easy to see the direction the traffic is going and whether or not it is on a collision course. However, night VFR does have some substantial differences from routine day VFR flying.
First, let us consider the emergency with which we are confronted in the event of engine failure in a single engine airplane. Our choices of where to set the airplane down at night are much more limited than they are in broad daylight. I know several experienced VFR pilots and at least one IFR-rated pilot, willing to fly his single-engine airplane in IMC in the daytime, but who won't fly at night at all. They refuse to fly at night because of the possibility of having to make an off-airport landing in the event of a power loss. Evidently they believe the old saying that if you should lose your engine at night the thing to do is pick out the blackest spot on the ground within gliding range, aim for it, and glide toward it. When you get low, turn on your landing light. If you like what you see, go ahead and land. If you don't like what you see, turn the light off. Frankly, I don't see the difference between having to put an airplane down dead-stick at night and doing so in daylight through a cloud deck. In either case, it is a risk one must assume if he or she decides to fly single-engine IFR or single-engine at night. With today's dependable engines it is a risk I am willing to assume.
Really, as a general rule, one of the worst places to set an airplane down in the daytime is a road — they are almost always criss-crossed by nearly invisible wires which the pilot fails to see until it is too late to avoid them. So, unless there is a clear straightaway on an expressway or a level median, a road is a poor choice during the day. However, at night a road is likely to be the best choice. You just have to take your chances with the possibility of encountering wires crossing the road. Another calculated risk one must assume. These are risks that I, personally, am willing to assume, although I do not encourage others to do so. Each person must make those decisions for him/herself. I never tell anyone how to fly or what to do. I tell 'em what I do and let 'em make up their own minds, If they like what I have to say, fine. If not, also fine.
If the night is clear, with the moon and stars out, there will be a well-defined horizon and night VFR flying is a joy. But if there any clouds around, even widely scattered thin clouds, it is quite possible to fly into a cloud and instantly become disoriented, and this could lead to disaster. Even for the IFR pilot, unexpectedly entering cloud at night is a strange experience. The glow of the running lights, or the blinding flash of your strobes being reflected off the cloud, may be your first indication. At this point, the VFR pilot would be wise to initiate a standard-rate, 180-degree turn back out of the cloud, just as was practiced during primary training.
The most important of the senses for a pilot is sight, and there are numerous illusions with which we must contend at night. Things are frequently not what they seem to be. The judgment of height above the ground on an approach to land is much more difficult at night than it is in the daytime. In cruising flight a bright star might be confused with a light on the ground in sparsely populated areas, and a narrow, lighted runway will likely appear to be farther away than it really is. This could lead to landing short of the runway. If a pilot is flying in the clear on top of a solid cloud deck with the moon and stars above, if the deck should happen to be a slant deck and the pilot used it as his horizon reference, he/she could well wind up flying in a circle, a quite large one. This, of course, can also happen to the VFR pilot in broad daylight as well when flying VFR on top. Even on a clear night, a bright star on the horizon can appear to be a light on the ground, or conversely a distant light on the ground can appear to the pilot to be a star in the sky.
There are several other illusions that lie in wait to catch the unwary pilot at night. If there are scattered clouds below, on an approach with the runway in plain sight, it is possible to fly into a cloud and suddenly lose everything. These are merely a few of the differences between flying VFR at night and in the daytime. When you are alone, flying at night, the feeling of loneliness is much greater at night than it is in the daylight.
If you are high enough to see the cities and towns, VFR navigation by pilotage at night is very easy. Prominent landmarks stand out at night just as they do in the daytime. On a clear night, the lights of the cities and towns stand out like jewels on black velvet, and by comparing their layout to the VFR chart, it is a simple matter to maintain your orientation. Of course, in really desolate, sparsely populated areas, it is an enormous help to have and use navaids such as Loran C or GPS in those areas where VORs and NDBs are few and far between. Of course, there is no difference whatever between navigating during the day and at night if one is flying on airways or with Loran C or GPS. Also, the air is more likely to be calm at night so wind corrections are likely to be less drastic than in the daytime.
Another consideration is fuel. The operators at many airports close up and go home by nightfall, and if one is on a rather long trip requiring one or more fuel stops, it is important to call ahead and ascertain that fuel will be available when you arrive. Otherwise, you might find yourself in the position of being forced into an unscheduled overnight stay at someplace other than your intended destination.
There are two pieces of equipment that should be aboard when flying at night, one sometimes required and one optional. The regulations require a flashlight of at least two "D" cell capacity when for-hire operations are being conducted or when flying a large or turbine-powered multi-engine airplane, and this is definitely a good idea at other times if for no other reason than reading the VFR chart. (Many cabin dome lights are inadequate for this purpose.) And, of course, in the event of electrical failure it is nice to be able to see inside the cockpit.
The optional piece of equipment, which I highly recommend, is a two-way hand-held radio. I once had an experience at night when the alternator in my airplane simply died. Fat, dumb, and happy, I failed to notice the discharge the ammeter was showing, and the first I became aware of the situation was when it got dark in the cockpit. The autopilot, which was engaged at the time, gave up. There I was, over the middle of Lake Erie with no electrical power in the airplane. Fortunately, it was a clear VFR night and I was able to fly the airplane home uneventfully. Since that time, I have never flown at night without my trusty hand-held radio on the empty seat beside me. Although the likelihood of this occurring is extremely remote, I advise everyone to take the same precaution.
VFR Into IFR
The classic situation of the VFR pilot blundering into IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) is aggravated at night. What happens is this: a non-qualified pilot finds him/herself in cloud (day or night). Just the weight of his/her hand on the yoke pulls it down slightly. This causes the airplane to bank, which in turn causes the nose to pitch down, causing an increase in the bank, causing a further increase in the pitch down (a classic example of the theory of cumulative causation as opposed to circular causation — A causes an increase in B which causes an increase in A which causes a further increase in B ad infinitum). By actual testing it was discovered that in this situation it takes the an average pilot 22 seconds to understand that he is in a "graveyard spiral," a diving spiral at an accelerating rate of speed. About now, the pilot glances at the airspeed indicator and thinks, "My God! Look how fast I'm going." He/she then gives a good healthy yank on the yoke, all the way to the stop in an effort to slow the airplane down. This results in seriously overstressing the airplane and the next day we read in the paper about how "another one of those little airplanes came falling out of the sky in pieces." Or, equally bad, if the pilot manages to pull up and survive, there could well be hidden stress in the structure, such that on a future flight a moderately steep turn could result in the airplane coming unglued.
This tragic situation can happen at any time, but during daylight, unless conditions are extremely hazy it is difficult to inadvertently blunder into a cloud — you can see 'em and avoid 'em. But at night, particularly on a moonless, starless night, over water with no well-defined horizon, or over sparsely populated areas where there are no lights on the ground and in hazy conditions leaving the pilot with an ill-defined horizon or no horizon at all, it is easy to do. Of course, if the airplane is low enough, and just barely gets into a well-defined diving spiral, it will impact Mother Earth at a high rate of speed rather than being pulled apart. Regardless, the result is the same — another tragic fatal "accident." As I mentioned earlier, inadvertently flying into a cloud at night can surprise the IFR-rated pilot whether or not he/she is on a flight plan and in controlled airspace.
Note: This column was written prior to the recent accident involving JFK Jr. which brought a great deal of publicity, and because of its timely nature, I have asked my editor to run it out of order. I have several other completed columns in the bank which would normally be run prior to this one.
Blue skies and sunshine.
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