Answers for Pilots: Dark challenges

Take to the skies at night

November 1, 2008

It’s November, and our spinning globe has tilted those of us in the Northern Hemisphere away from the sun and into days with more dark hours than light. There may be a temptation to pack the airplane away in the hangar until spring, however doing so may deprive you of the wonderful flight experiences only found at night, when you can enjoy a canopy of stars and moonlit landscapes rarely seen from our well-lit neighborhoods. If it’s been awhile since your last night flight, let’s think about night operations and consider the visual challenges.

First of all, if you plan to bring passengers, make sure you are night current—you must have made and logged three takeoffs and landings to a full stop at night (one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise) in the past 90 days in the same category and class of aircraft you will be flying.

Then, a review of airport beacon colors might be worthwhile: alternating white and green is what you probably want, unless you’re looking for a heliport (fast pulsing green, yellow, and white beacons) or a military airport (two quick white, then green). And, if you have wheels under your aircraft, don’t approach a white and yellow beacon, which indicates a lighted water landing area. When you have your destination airport spotted, remember that keying the microphone seven times in five seconds turns on the airport’s pilot-controlled lighting to high-intensity, five clicks for medium intensity, and three for low. The lights will only stay lit for 15 minutes, though, so re-key the mic when you are in the traffic pattern to assure a lit field for your final approach and landing.

Understand how night vision works and make the most of it. Cones and rods—the cells that control day and night vision—respond to light differently. Cones focus best in bright light, but lose capability to see well after dusk. Rods work the night shift, allowing us to move through a dimly lit world, and they don’t respond well to color. (Ever get dressed in the dark and end up with one blue and one black sock that looked identical when you pulled them on?) Rod cells are clustered on the edges of our retinas, giving our peripheral vision an advantage after dark. We see objects that are slightly off-center better than those straight ahead. Use this to your advantage when flying at night. Scan continuously and pay attention to what you see on the edges of your vision. Realize that contrasting shades of gray may indicate overlapping terrain or objects.

Of course, you will remember to bring two or three flashlights, but take special care to point the light away from everyone’s eyes, as just a glance at it will wipe out visual night acclimation for many minutes. Questions? Give AOPA a call at 800-USA-AOPA (872-2672) or check out AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s many online resources for night flying. See “ Technique: City Lights,” page 116.

Membership Q&A

Q: Whom should I contact if I don’t want to receive telephone calls from AOPA?

A: Contact member services either by e-mail or telephone (800-872-2672, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern time) and let us know your preferences. You can specify your e-mail and mail preferences as well.

Q: I recently read an issue of AOPA Flight Training magazine and even though I’ve got plenty of flying experience, the articles provided good information that I found to be helpful and interesting. Is there a way I can start getting it monthly in addition to my AOPA Pilot magazine?

A: For $18 a year, you can add AOPA Flight Training magazine to your AOPA membership. Call member services and we’ll be happy to get this started for you.

Q: Could I be putting myself at risk flying without renter’s insurance?

A: Yes, you could be putting yourself at risk. But, most important, you’re putting yourself in financial jeopardy when flying without renter’s insurance. The average cost of an aviation claim is $30,000, in addition to legal fees, which average $20,000 per accident but can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the circumstances. The AOPA Insurance Agency offers renter’s policies for as low as $90. Call the AOPA Insurance Agency to make sure you are covered (800-622-2672).

Member Services contact information:

Phone: 800-USA-AOPA (872-2672), 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Eastern time) Monday through Friday
After hours: Renew your membership, reset your Web password, or enroll in automatic annual renewal using our self-service touch-tone phone option

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Kathy Dondzila

Kathy Dondzila | Manager, Technical Communications, Pilot Information Center

Technical Communications Manager, Kathy Dondzila, joined AOPA in 1990 and is an instrument-rated private pilot.