Ounce of Prevention Part 1 of 12

Into the Heart of Darkness

January 1, 2001

Flying the night sky without fear

No one wants to become a statistic. Though the overall accident rate for general aviation has leveled off recently, as we integrate new technologies into the cockpit and improve our training we should be increasing the margin of safety, not hitting a plateau. While we generally accept a certain level of risk in flying as we do in our ground-bound lives, any accident, when it happens to you, is one too many. Frustratingly, the most common accident causes are the same year after year.

In this 12-part, yearlong series on accident prevention strategies, we'll explore the main causes of accidents and specific ways you can train to avoid becoming involved in each one. From VFR into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) to landing accidents, there are common threads to every pilot-induced scenario that you can bypass with a little foresight and preemptive action—an ounce of prevention. You can bring these tips along on your next local flight or session with a CFI and take that extra step toward safety. — The Editors

Night tactics

Some accident factors appear to go with certain times of the year. Though worries of winter ice abound when temperatures fall, more pilots find themselves flying under darkened skies as the days grow shorter. Night poses particular hazards that aren't a factor during the day, and it compounds other risks found around the clock.

For this reason, you should focus some attention on building skills to fly safely in the dark, whether or not you plan on making night flights. Just as a pesky crosswind can catch pilots unaware, dusk sneaks up on those returning from long cross-countries.

Night flying is not inherently dangerous—on the contrary, the peaceful nature of flight after dark is reflected in the typically calmer air, easy-to-spot aircraft, and uncongested frequencies. You'll never forget the first time you see the moon at perigee rising through a dust-streaked sky, making the disk giant and orange on the horizon. However, there are several trouble spots associated with flying at night that crop up over and over in accident reports.

When the sun goes down

To state the obvious, it's awfully dark at night. Not only must our eyes adapt physically to the absence of light, but also the objects we look at to judge distance and depth can no longer be seen. For example, during the day, it's easy to use the trees next to the lake on final to help you determine your height above the ground and your descent rate. At night, those trees fade into the dark and become indistinguishable from the black hole they surround.

The change in visual cues is part of what prompts the FAR Part 61 regulations that charge us to train specifically for nighttime operations. While we do a good job in training, that currency slips quickly after the night dual is logged—unless the pilot makes it a routine priority to practice takeoffs and landings at night.

Imagine you are on a nice stabilized approach, aiming between two rows of runway edge lights. As your gaze shifts up to transition from the descent glide to the flare, you lose the lights that allowed you to gauge your approach. Now, with the idea that the runway surface is coming up too quickly, you pull back and settle in with a thump. Pilots traditionally have more trouble greasing it on at night than during the day.

You can avoid this trap by practicing night landings. There is no substitute for the real thing. While you practice, allow your eyes to relax toward the far end of the runway. Level off your descent just as you reach a couple of feet above the runway edge lights, and allow the airplane to settle naturally to the pavement. Since you may make your approach faster and use a little more distance finding the asphalt, you may want to plan some of your first solo night flights so that you fly into airports with longer runways.

As you gain proficiency, you'll get a feel for the descent rate you need over the runway to create a nice touchdown. Once you have the basics down, you should consider other hazards that are particular to the nighttime runway environment.

Dusk and night bring quieter times to smaller airports, and those creatures that make the open spaces near airports their home wander out onto runways with no preconception of the danger. Numerous accidents have occurred as airplanes touching down on otherwise deserted strips have encountered deer, moose, and even horses.

If your night flight takes you to an airport that is surrounded by woodlands, fields, or even vacant lots—and it doesn't see much activity after hours—you may want to make a low pass before landing to alert the fauna to your presence.

Speaking of natural hazards, those trees you use on final to judge your descent in daylight are invisible at night. If you make your approach too shallow, you may not see them until they loom into the beam of your landing light—a little too late. Going into an unfamiliar airport at night raises more concerns. The notation "Trees" in the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD), though warning you of their existence, isn't very descriptive. And trees, like most natural phenomena, are subject to constant change.

At the end of a night trip up to Ohio last fall, I landed at the Medina airport, for the first time, after 10 p.m. After meeting a friend and tying down the airplane in the dark, we left the airplane overnight. The next morning upon our return, I was startled to see that the airport was surrounded by trees on all sides. I admit I fell prey to a common phenomena—mentally equating Ohio to Iowa—and imagined wide-open fields across the state. Let's just say I won't make that assumption again.

Luckily, the runway I had used offered a VASI. Staying on a dedicated glideslope, such as that provided by a VASI or PAPI—or even using an ILS—when approaching a runway at night can save you from your own ignorance, like it saved me from mine.

Better yet, you can do some more thorough reconnaissance. If looking at the A/FD or guides like AOPA's Airport Directory tips you off to an obstruction, there are places to investigate further. You can call a local FBO or flight school for a description of the hazards and some local procedures. Or you can go to the Web—either the airport site or that of a local business. They often have photos that can give you a sense of the area.

Go-arounds can also be hazardous when you can't see any obstructions ahead. More than that, pitching up into a moonless sky leaves you with no reference besides the instruments in the cockpit. Allow the airplane to regain airspeed over the runway, clean up the gear, and retract the flaps to a takeoff setting once you've got some altitude over the runway. Then, use the attitude indicator to set a reasonable climb pitch, and cross-check the airspeed indicator to make sure you don't get too slow.

The same sudden loss of visual references that occurs on a night go-around can also occur when you transition from VFR flight over a well-lighted city to over a dark lake or other black hole. Be ready to shift your focus to the instrument panel in a similar manner.

IMC surprises

Instrument skills clearly deserve special attention when preparing for night flight. A night without a moon—or one with an overcast blocking the moon's glow—means a nearly horizonless environment, unless you're over a major metropolitan area. You should either file an IFR flight plan if flying cross-country, or simply focus your attention on the instruments, while still looking outside for traffic, if flying VFR.

Because clouds and precipitation can be impossible to see in the dark, in-flight weather encounters at night come as more of a surprise to the pilot who wanders into them, sometimes with fatal results. In January 1997, a Cessna 172 began a night VFR flight from State College, Pennsylvania, to Elmira, New York. During a preflight weather briefing, the pilot was advised that VFR flight was not recommended because of the possibility of mountain obscuration and strong winds. The pilot departed around 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, and the flight ended on a 2,100-foot ridge, about 15 nm north of the intended course. Examination of the radar track indicated several heading changes of more than 270 degrees, with the final left turn of approximately 180 degrees terminating in a right-hand spiral to the ground.

The private pilot had no instrument rating, and only about one hour of simulated instrument flight time. Before the flight, he admitted fatigue to his son, whom he had visited in State College earlier that day. The combination of strong winds aloft—forecast up to 39 knots at 3,000 feet—and exhaustion from fighting those winds on the trip down put the pilot in a poor position to do battle with IMC on so little prior experience.

Your best weapon in dealing with unforeseen IMC is a solid set of instrument skills. Ideally, receiving additional training or acquiring an instrument rating stacks the deck in your favor. That and regular practice flying by instrument reference with a safety pilot keep your talents polished so that if they are called on stage unexpectedly, your performance won't elicit a volley of tomatoes from the gallery.

Real IFR

Night conditions also make IFR more hazardous, though the exact causes are elusive. Perhaps pilots are generally more tired in the dark hours, or the unfamiliar scene upon breaking out of the goop throws otherwise capable pilots off course. No matter the reason, darkness increases the likelihood of having a weather-related accident, according to the 1999 Nall Report, published by the AOPA Air Safety Foundation: 66.7 percent of instrument approach accidents happened at night.

All of the ways to increase your chances of performing a successful approach in the daylight hours hold true at night. Review the approach before you begin your arrival and distill out the critical information so that you fully understand the procedure. Check navaids to ensure they are functioning correctly and get updated weather from flight watch or the ATIS/AWOS/ASOS. Think critically about how the weather reported will affect your approach. Set a personal minimum descent altitude (MDA), based not only on your currency and familiarity with the airplane you're flying, but also on your current alertness level. A tired pilot shouldn't go as low as one at the top of his game. Know your backup plan and be prepared to stick to it.

You can practice all of these tasks during simulated instrument flights with a safety pilot or an instructor. The more routine all of the pieces of the approach puzzle are to you, the more likely they are to fall into place when darkness sets in.

Night skies hold a quiet beauty for those who fly in them and stay conscious of the special skill sets involved. Flying after dark need not be a riskier venture, but it's up to the pilot to make sure night flying is no riskier than day flying.

Links to additional information about night flying may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/2001/links0101.shtml). E-mail the author at [email protected].

Common accident scenarios: Night

  • Continued VFR into IMC, as a result of an unexpected in-flight weather encounter
  • Improper IFR approach/descent below MDA
  • Improper takeoff or go-around profile
  • Controlled flight into terrain on a VFR approach or final
  • Collision with objects on the runway
  • Controlled flight into unlighted terrain or water during cruise flight

Safety strategies

  • Fly at night regularly to review proper visual cues.
  • Research airport hazards before flying to unfamiliar airports.
  • Clear the runway of wildlife before landing at deserted airports.
  • Maintain basic instrument skills to use during all night operations and especially on moonless or overcast nights.
  • Be aware of fatigue and raise personal minimums, both VFR and IFR, accordingly.
  • If flying IFR, maintain extra vigilance for common traps: improperly set navaids, misunderstood clearances, descent below the MDA or decision altitude, and poorly executed missed approaches.