Pilot Counsel

Night and the FARs

August 1, 2010

John YodiceGeneral aviation pilots can easily be confused about the concept of “night” as it relates to the rules requiring recent piloting experience, and as it relates to the flight rules governing VFR weather minimums. I must confess that sometimes I have been, and that I sometimes need a reminder. The concept of “night” is different in each situation.

For the basic VFR weather minimums of FAR 91.155, the official regulatory definition of “night” in FAR Part 1, Definitions, says that, “Night means the time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight, as published in the American Air Almanac, converted to local time.” Despite the technicality of the definition, it does capture the more common understanding of nighttime—after evening twilight and before morning dawns. For fun, in my FAR Refresher seminar, I often ask pilots whether they carry the American Air Almanac in their flight bag in order to make this determination. I haven’t found one. Nevertheless, pilots don’t seem to have trouble applying this technical definition.

However, for the night takeoff and landing experience required under FAR 61.57(b), “night” means something different. It means the period beginning one hour after sunset and ending one hour before sunrise. A significant difference, although still easily applied.

VFR weather minimums

FAR 91.155 and FAR 91.157 spell out the weather minimums for operating VFR and special VFR in the different kinds of airspace. The basic minimums of FAR 91.155 do not change between day and night in controlled airspace—that is, Class B, C, D, and E (there are no minimums in Class A airspace). In general, but with exceptions (see “Pilot Counsel: VFR Weather Minimums,” November and December 2005 AOPA Pilot), the minimums are three statute miles flight visibility and 500 feet below, 1,000 feet above, and 2,000 feet horizontal distance from clouds.

It is only in uncontrolled airspace—that is, Class G—that there is a nighttime difference in the basic minimums. In Class G airspace the minimums at 1,200 feet or less above the surface (regardless of msl altitude) are one statute mile flight visibility and clear of clouds during the day, and at night three statute miles flight visibility and 500 feet below, 1,000 feet above, and 2,000 feet horizontal distance from clouds (ignoring for now the limited nighttime exception for a one-mile visibility minimum in the traffic pattern of a close-by runway). Above 1,200 feet from the surface (but less than 10,000 feet msl), the basic minimums during the day are one statute mile and 500 feet below, 1,000 feet above, and 2,000 feet horizontal distance from clouds; at night the visibility requirement increases to three statute miles while the distance from clouds remains the same. So, at night in uncontrolled airspace the flight visibility minimum (and ground visibility, where reported) generally increases to three miles.

Special VFR has a nighttime difference too, but it’s expressed in different terms. Except for helicopters, special VFR operations may only be conducted between sunrise and sunset (or in Alaska when the sun is less than 6 degrees below the horizon, essentially daylight), unless the pilot is instrument-rated and the aircraft is equipped for instrument flight. So, essentially, for night special VFR, an instrument rating and an instrument-equipped aircraft are required. Otherwise, day or night, special VFR operations may be conducted with an ATC clearance, clear of clouds and—except for helicopters—when flight visibility is at least one statute mile. Some 32 locations don’t allow fixed-wing special VFR at all.

Recent flight experience

The night takeoff and landing experience requirement of FAR 61.57(b) does not use the regulatory definition of night quoted earlier in this column. Here, the relevant nighttime period is more restrictive and is expressed as beginning one hour after sunset and ending one hour before sunrise. “No person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers during the period…unless within the preceding 90 days that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop during the period beginning one hour after sunset and ending one hour before sunrise.”

An important significance is in the logging of our nighttime experience. When the FAA or someone in authority wants to review our logbook, we want to be sure that nothing in the logbook or elsewhere suggests that we were using the wrong, more lenient nighttime period.

I have noticed that while pilots are careful to log night landings, they sometimes fail to log night takeoffs. Remember to log both night takeoffs and night landings to document that you meet the recent night flight experience requirement.

John S. Yodice and his staff provide general legal services to AOPA and its affiliated organizations.