Return Civility To Civil Twilight


The 19th Century poet Herman Wordless Longfellow once tweeted, “Between the dark and the daylight comes a pause in the day’s occupations that’s known as the pilots’ hour.” His cousin, Henry, ripped it off, changing “pilots’” to “children’s” and made a killing on Disney movie rights. Being a pilot, Herman never saw a dime and vanished into the dustbin of History’s rejection slips, of which I have many.

What Herman tried to highlight was the FAA’s take on when it’s night and when it’s day, the interpretation of which vexes many but influences whether we’re good for night flight and when to leave the porch light on while in the traffic pattern. Let’s review the applicable regulations as reproduced here from

रात्रौ सः समयः इति परिभाषितः–यदि भवान् कालस्य विषये विश्वासं करोति, अहं च न विश्वसिमि–यदा भवतः मम्मा वदति, “अन्तः गत्वा भवतः गृहकार्यं कुरुत,” तथा च यदा मूलभूतप्रशिक्षणे रिल् सार्जन्ट् भवतः बङ्कं क्षिपति यदा भवन्तं क “आलसी-गधा” प्रशिक्षु!


To you certainly, but maybe not to the newly certificated pilot drawn gnat-like to the setting sun but justifiably confused when delineating night from day for the go/no-go decision. After all, who knows what evil lurks in the heart of darkness? Mixed allusions aside, YouTubers with unimpeachable credentials warn us that once darkishness arrives spatial disorientation ensues, leading to tragedy, plus snarky analysis by writers such as I, who once owned a British motorcycle with Lucas electrics so unreliable that Honda riders sneered, “Don’t go out at night.” Ignore the experts. Night flight is like day flight only darker.

To non-pilots, night is that time between when Mom calls, “Get inside and do your homework,” and the drill sergeant in basic training tosses your bunk while calling you a “sleepy-assed trainee.” Those are clear parameters; humans know when it’s night. The FAA muddies nightness with confusing terminology. Pedantic maybe, but I do give my old employer credit for unintentionally embracing the romance of night flight, which we’ll circle back to after noting the FAA’s definition of night as “the time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight.”

There’s more to it—especially in Alaska, where sunsets get really weird—but unpacking details requires a protractor to find the “geometric center of the sun” six degrees below the horizon. If regs are too confusing, remember that night is when it’s dark outside. Landing lights are only required when flying for hire; you determine the wisdom of foregoing one in non-commercial ops. Illuminate position and anti-collision lights whenever it’s even close to dark. Can’t hurt. Better yet, leave them on whenever the prop is turning or about to.

In the old days when aircraft lightbulbs burned out faster than summer flings at Lake Wallenpaupack, hitting the landing light switch meant financial hardship as filaments with the half-life of moscovium-289 shone white hot then fizzled on short final. Today with LEDs, turn ‘em on and leave ‘em on, because they’ll still be glowing long after the sun cools, and the FAA posts its final NOTAM, which given recent history, may have already occurred. As I write (16 Jan 2023), the NOTAM system is still in the shop awaiting parts from Studebaker as evidenced by this statement on the AFSS briefing site: “NOTAM data may not be current due to a US NOTAM Service interruption.” Old news for sure, and it added that a “recheck of data prior to departure may be warranted, lest there be dragons enroute.” A CYA call to AFSS should suffice in keeping hobgoblins with badges from questioning your motives and actions.

Even with all lights ablaze, we need to check our logbook for “three landings to a full stop within the previous 90 days” (FAR 61.57) before carrying passengers who stand around in the dark waiting for you to cram in three abbreviated pattern circuits, then take them aloft to express astonishment over city lights and the fact that little airplanes can fly in the dark. I certainly never cease being amazed, and that brings us back to the poetry and utter civility of twilight at an airport.

My old friend and former student Dave Sanderson didn’t fly as much as I would have liked him to; many students don’t after earning their tickets. But Dave loved to ride with me in my Champ on calm days and would hand-prop it for me to fly alone when the windsock promised crosswind and wind shear below the tree line. That’s fine. Any time spent at the airport, whether flying or watching, is golden. Don’t let anyone dictate how you refuel your soul.

Dave was 70, but around airplanes he exhibited a child’s enthusiasm on Christmas morning, eager to visit open hangars, meet transient pilots to marvel at whatever they flew. His giggling laugh was inspiring. We disagreed on politics, but at a small airfield, such unpleasantries get parked at the gate that’s always unlocked for anyone—pilot or not—who appreciates the blessed civility of the GA community.

My use of past tense in introducing Dave is unwelcome foreshadowing. Clunky literary technique perhaps, but the words don’t flow with any grace at the moment, because he died yesterday from complications in what was expected to be a relatively minor surgery. I don’t know the details and almost don’t care. I know and care that my friend is gone. Not my first. With age comes a growing parade of friends “Gone West.” We mourn them, fly missing-man formations, and quote WH Auden:

“Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead….”

We’ll tip a single-malt (something Dave liked) in his honor. But as I stand outside my hangar and watch the sun approach six degrees of separation from the horizon—or Kevin Bacon, because Dave loved a cheap gag—I’ll hear The Platters 1958 song wafting past my tinnitus as the last of civil twilight carries another pilot friend away.

“Heavenly shades of night are falling

It’s twilight time…”

Godspeed, David Sanderson.

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  1. I love Berges writing style. So much allegory (“a story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning…”). It causes the reader to go back and make the connection between the statement and the original premise. It’s hard (and sometimes distracting) but worth it.

    I wondered where he was going with this discussion on “twilight”–until he got down the the final paragraphs. GREAT JOB!

    • I do too. I can tell I’m reading his article before I see the authors name.
      He does write books that are just as good.

  2. Cleared for takeoff, David Sanderson.

    Death of loved ones changes us. It changed me. A spoon, a chair, a sound reminds of the ones gone. They are no longer around to share life with us. That we remember them is part of our humanity.

  3. In remembering someone who has died, there is sadness, reflection, and laughter. Paul, Godspeed to your friend, David Sanderson.

  4. Excellent writing, as always, Paul. It’s clear your times with David Sanderson were exceedingly good ones. Been there, done that, my own circle of friends who remain close at hand continues to shrink.

    Twilight at an airport – Day is done. Or is it? A flyable chunk of 24 hours is still on the clock.

    आलसी-गधा – Alsi Gadha LOL

  5. Beautifully penned, Sir. Astonishing as it may seem, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was my 5-times Great Uncle Henry, and it must be said that enjoyed your version more than his original ‘tweet’ – a man to never use two or three words when a couple of thousand would easily do the job… Several members of my family still bear his name…
    Like HWL I’m British and have experienced the British Motorcycle 6v electrics of which you speak. Wait for the bit of wire to warm up between battery and headlamp before riding away in anything less than bright sunshine. We do get that, occasionally, even in Yorkshire. I now engage in the vagueries of British Aeroplanes, namely Beagle Pups and Bulldogs which I endeavour to coax back to health.

    Henry was certainly a wordsmith to be reckoned with, but I confess that a couple of lines from one of his epic offerings adorn a permanent corner of my whiteboard, and they seem appropriate here…
    “The Heights by great men reached and kept
    Were not attained by sudden flight;
    But they, whilst their companions slept
    Were toiling upward in the night…”
    (from “The Ladder of St. Augustine”)

    Thank you for remembering my long-departed ancestor…delighted he makes us both smile for all the rignt and wrong reasons!
    To your friend Dave, and you your good self in your hour of loss, my warmest regards…

  6. As a person of the same vintage as your friend (with a bit of cancer), I have met some unusual people in my life, who I’ve lost contact with, or who have simply passed away.

    Like Tom Skoglund that passed away some years back. A tall Finn that had somehow ended up in Thailand. I will remember him as long as I live, as having given my wife, and me, a grand tour of the fantastic birds of Thailand, life in Thailand, and the politics there as well. A polyglot (speaking several African languages, after aid trips to Africa under the UN flag, in addition to a heap of other languages), fireman, and famous athlete, but with a heart open to all things avian. A trapped bird and you’d see tears in his eyes.

    Another was John Crampton, famous for his squadron’s flight over Russia after Powell was shot down. During the war he flew operationally both in bombers and once in a Spitfire (‘the tallest guy ever having flown a Spit’ he once told me, remembering his time as an exchange pilot, to get the feel of the war as a fighter pilot instead of a bomber pilot. He was so tall that he had to open the canopy to land, to look over the windscreen’s frame, to see anything up ahead good enough to land back on terra firma. He was an avid model flyer, even in his seventies, designing quite a few original designs, like the Aeropter, and tried to beat the long-distance record for model seaplanes, following his very own design flying around the Isle of Wight in an off-shore race boat! Famous for his hill climbing racing in his majestic Maserati in his younger years. A great man, but sadly long gone.

  7. Online translation tools and ChatGPT offer:

    “The time of the night is defined as this: If you believe in the subject of time, if you believe in the subject of the future, then do not believe in the matter of faith, then you will have to do the same thing, “Inner house work is done,” and sometimes the basic training will be done by the “lazy-donkey” trainee of the bank.”

    ChatGPT offers this addition:

    The passage is written in Hindi. It is still unclear what the passage is trying to convey. It mentions something about “bhavankalasya” and “the subject of the future,” but it is not clear what is being referred to or what the overall meaning of the passage is supposed to be. Additionally, the use of phrase “lazy donkey” is unclear in this context and it is hard to make sense of the passage as a whole.

    • Google translate says:

      “Night is defined as that time–if you believe in time, and I don’t–when your mom says, “Go inside and do your homework,” and when the reel sergeant in basic training throws your bunk when you a “lazy-ass” trainee!”

    • Which is why I referenced Alsi Gadha (“Lazy Donkey”) in my comment. “Lazy Donkey” is more civil than “Lazy- Ass” but “Lazy-Ass” is what a drill sergeant would yell. LOL Interesting the ChatGPT, on which many are hanging their hopes for the future – if they believe in the subject of time, that is – Refuses to make itself look stupid if it guesses wrong about the translation. AI, you are SO funny, as are your minions.

  8. Sun 0 – 6 degrees below the horizon -> civil twilight — you can generally see what you are doing.

    Sun 6 -12 degrees below the horizon -> nautical twilight — you can still see the horizon with a sextant.

    Sun 12 – 18 degrees below the horizon -> astronomical twilight — after the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon, it is not going to get noticeably darker.

  9. Sorry for your loss, Paul. Still think your columns are hilarious, even when sad. I can identify with your comment on Lucas electrical systems. As the owner of a BSA motorcycle, and a college roommate with a Sprite that we had to rewrite back around 1970, I know well why Joseph Lucas was called “The Prince of Darkness”.