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Flying Seasons

Insidious Hazards From Dusk to Dawn

The darkest hours The orange moon like a holiday dinner plate on the horizon. Calmer, cooler air.

The darkest hours

The orange moon like a holiday dinner plate on the horizon. Calmer, cooler air. Quiet frequencies with nearly hushed voices out of deference to the dark.

There are many charms to flying at night—enough, in fact, to make a pilot wonder if those benefits balance the obvious drawback: Most of what you see looks mighty different with the big light out.

That said, there is a bright side. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation's 2006 Nall Report concludes that more accidents happen per flight hour during the daytime than at night (7.9 total accidents per 100,000 hours by day; 7.1 accidents per 100,000 hours at night). However, a nighttime accident is more likely to be fatal—just like an accident in instrument conditions is more likely to kill the perpetrator. While 16.9 percent of day accidents in visual meteorological conditions are deadly, the figure jumps to 26.7 percent in night VMC. In night instrument conditions, the results are even worse, with 67.9 percent of accidents resulting in fatalities.

Nighttime toolbox

  1. Practice regularly your night landing skills and instrument skills. Both require dedicated practice; keep in mind that both can be replicated with a flight simulator or flight training device.
  2. Know your options. When your options are few, it pays to know them all and keep them available. Avoid flying as far down the tunnel of narrowing options as you might during the daylight.
  3. Know the weather. Since you won't be able to see clouds, precipitation—or the windsock—with your eyes, you need to rely more heavily on data from AWOS, ATIS, METARs, and pilot reports.
  4. Dim the interior lights. Adjust the lights down as your eyes become accustomed to the night. Less light inside improves your view outside.
  5. Use runway visual aids like PAPI and VASI. These systems help you to combat the black hole—but also know they can become a crutch and are mechanical systems that can break down.
  6. Use electronic glideslopes in the cockpit. If the runway you're approaching has an ILS or an RNAV approach, and you're equipped with a glideslope receiver and/or a GPS using the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), use the electronic glideslope to help you maintain a stabilized approach. But stay aware of any obstructions when using a WAAS-generated glideslope on a nonprecision approach—stepdown altitudes may apply.


The Cessna 172 was operated by a private pilot with 160 hours and very little solo time at night, and little recent experience. That lack of recent experience proved a downfall—and highlights what is likely the most pervasive contributing factor to nighttime accidents. Unless we fly freight, we spend far more hours aloft during the day than at night, so its illusions are less familiar.

The wide, well-lit runway at Daytona Beach International Airport appeared at first glance to be the primary challenge to this pilot—the accident flight was her first night solo at the airport. Normally a wide, well-lit runway is a good thing, but the dimensions of the runway, different from what she had seen before, contributed to the fact the pilot flared high, landed hard, and collapsed the nose gear.

Another accident illustrates how illusions combine with hidden hazards at night. The pilot of a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 attempted a landing at St. Augustine, Florida. The pilot undershot the runway, touching down on a berm about 150 feet short. He mentioned in the report to the NTSB that he attempted to add power during the approach—perhaps to arrest his sink rate. With no visual approach path indicator, such as a PAPI or VASI, on this runway end, he had to rely upon his perceptive ability and cockpit gauges to determine if he had the proper descent rate and path. He misjudged the approach, landed short, and collapsed first the left main landing gear, then the right main gear.

The pilot noted also that the approach was over the intercoastal waterway, which is typically dark like most bodies of water at night. This made the pilot's lack of outside visual cues nearly complete, and created a black hole situation (see " Safety Pilot Landmark Accidents: Into the Abyss," September Pilot).

The antidote to both of these accident scenarios? Practice with an instructor in various conditions and runway environments so you have a good mental picture to work from when landing at an unfamiliar airport, or under different lighting conditions. You cannot always count on an approach path indicator such as a VASI to provide you with a glideslope to follow. Food for thought: Even when present and apparently working, these systems can fail, so it helps if you have a good sense of what hazards lie under the approach path (including trees, hills, powerlines, and buildings), and can use other tools (such as the vertical speed indicator) to determine if you are maintaining a proper descent rate to the runway.

Until you have many night landings under your belt in varying conditions, at varying airports, you're exposed to more risk. Of course, the only remedy for this is to get over that hump of risk with practice, practice, practice.

Reduced visibility

Unseen hazards at night are not always fixed in place. The benign clouds and showers we encounter during the daylight hide from us at night—making a sudden entrance into reduced or negligible visibility a surprise. We don't make the transition from VFR to IFR as well when we're caught off guard.

An instrument-rated commercial pilot was on a cross-country positioning flight in a Cessna 172 in a very sparsely populated area of Utah, near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Judging by the weather reports at nearby stations, the pilot had likely been flying in and out of light rain at 10,500 feet en route from Mesa, Arizona, to Provo, Utah. However, reports from park rangers at Bryce Canyon and Escalante, Utah, at the time of the accident noted occasional heavy rain and winds.

The pilot entered a descending spiral after encountering rain of increased intensity with fatal results. Conjecture leads us to conclude that the further reduction in visibility, combined with the absence of ground lighting, effectively erased the horizon over the dark desert landscape. Why the pilot entered a spiral when it seems he had plenty of appropriate training and a recent instrument proficiency check raises questions as to the pilot's true competency, and the thoroughness of the IPC he took. It also raises the specter of other exacerbating factors, such as vertigo—or fatigue, or lack of food or adequate hydration, which could have compounded vertigo. The airplane's pitot-static and vacuum systems checked out okay in the post-crash analysis.

An ounce of prevention in this case comes from using the instruments to verify aircraft attitude consistently and regularly during night cross-country flying, regardless of meteorological conditions. If you're prepared to transition to the gauges at any point during the flight, a sudden encounter with IMC would be a nonevent.

A second accident illustrating loss of horizon and subsequent loss of control involved a Piper Seneca flying into Old Bridge Airport in New Jersey. According to radar data (the airplane was not on an instrument flight plan, nor was the pilot instrument rated), the airplane approached Old Bridge Airport, entered the traffic pattern, and descended below radar at 400 feet msl. Two witnesses on opposing sides of the airport observed the airplane apparently going around, pitching up sharply, and impacting the ground. Although no weather reports exist for Old Bridge, witnesses at the time of the accident estimated the visibility on the ground to be roughly one-eighth of a mile.

Temperature can converge with the dew point after the sun goes down and the air cools, creating layers of fog that hug the ground and develop rapidly. Like clouds and precipitation at altitude, fog is difficult or impossible to see at night, aside from clues such as shrouded or haloed streetlights or other ground lighting. Part of your prelanding checklist is to check conditions at the airport—and a close temperature and dew point spread bears paying close attention. You could be in the clear and descend into an obscuring layer. The loss of horizon—and handicap to see any hazards whatsoever—can compromise your ability to go around safely.

Fewer options

A final accident presents an interesting case. We can't know the accident's precipitating cause with certainty, but something drove the pilot of a Cessna 182 to initiate a descent almost to the valley floor nearly 34 miles from his destination in Owens Valley, in eastern California. Subsequent controlled flight into terrain had fatal results.

The pilot often made the cross-country flight from Eastern Sierra Regional Airport, in Bishop, to Lone Pine Airport, a distance of 57 nm. The valley is lined with mountains, and the moon lay below the peaks, creating a dark landscape hiding several jagged terrain features. Headlights from cars traveling the busy Highway 395 down the valley floor likely provided the only illumination—a string of diamonds in the night doing little to define any rising terrain.

The pilot began a controlled descent well ahead of his destination for an unknown reason. Anecdotal evidence suggests the aircraft often operated on automotive gas although there was no supplemental type certificate on file for this use. The model of 182 is eligible for the STC to operate on mogas; however, all automotive gas delivered to that area of California contained 5.7 percent ethanol, which is incompatible with aircraft use. It's possible the pilot had a rough-running engine, but post-accident tests to the airplane did not show any mechanical failure prior to the accident.

The accident highlights quite simply the less forgiving nature of flight when terrain is invisible. Any emergency or abnormal situation becomes more so. In the daylight, a loss of power may very well have resulted in a straightforward off-airport landing—highly survivable for both the pilot and the airplane. But add a dark night to the mix and the ante goes up. Even knowing your route intimately—this pilot had "thousands" of hours flying in the valley—does not inoculate you. Rather, it can lull you into a false sense of security. If truly pressed into an off-airport landing at night, you won't be able to see the hazards that you could easily avoid by day: trees, telephone poles, fences, and buildings.

Night limits your options; you must work to keep those you have left wide open.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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