During a recent gathering of local pilots, some were surprised to learn that I rarely fly cross-country at night in single-engine airplanes. This has not always been the case. When I was younger and bolder, I used to fly singles all over the mountains and deserts of the Southwest at night without giving it a second thought. Ignorance was bliss. But as I became older—and hopefully wiser—the notion of an engine failure at night created more concern. Single-engine, cross-country flying at night became a risk I no longer am willing to accept.
The seminal event that began to temper my single-engine night flying occurred some years ago when a good friend called to ask if I would give him a flight review in his Bonanza that evening.
“Why tonight?” I asked. “How about tomorrow?”
“Well,” he explained, embarrassed, “my currency expires tonight, and I have a passenger flight tomorrow. Tonight is all I have.”
Why not conduct a flight review at night, I thought. Nothing says that it has to be done during the day. So I agreed.
Toward the end of that night flight and as is my custom, I pulled back the throttle and dutifully proclaimed, “Engine failure!”
My friend began the drill with poise and polish, as if he had been waiting for the moment. He established and held the airplane’s best glide speed, simulated an attempt to restart the engine, and continued looking for a place to land. (We were beyond gliding distance of any airport.)
“Hey, Barry,” he announced with frustration, “I have no idea where to put this thing. Do you have any ideas?”
I had to admit that I didn’t have a clue either. In the meantime, the hands of the altimeter continued to unwind toward the darkness below. I was reminded of the humorous adage about turning on your landing lights when about to make a forced landing at night and then turning them off again if you don’t like what you see. It’s not so funny, though, when it could be for real.
Discretion being the better part of valor, I advanced the throttle and said, “Exercise over. Let’s go back.”
Driving home that night, I thought more about how challenging it would be to cope with a total engine failure in a single at night. I asked myself, again, where would we have landed tonight had the engine actually failed? I honestly didn’t know. Survival would have rested more in the hands of fate than it would have been the result of skill and cunning.
The likelihood of a total engine failure at any time is obviously remote. The vast majority of pilots have never had an engine failure, and likely never will. The more experience we have without having had an engine failure, however, the more reliant on the engine we become. We tend to become isolated from the suggestion of an engine failure, a form of complacency. The trouble is, engine failures do occur, and should one happen to you, the probability of such an event leaps from remotely possible to 100 percent. I’ve had three, and that might explain why I am more sensitive to the thought of an engine failure than those who have not had the pleasure. One of those was a sudden, catastrophic failure caused by a thrown piston rod (thankfully during the day).
Most of us have been trained to assess the terrain when making cross-country flights in single-engine airplanes during daylight hours. We have been taught to have some sense of where we would attempt to land in the event of an engine failure. There is almost always someplace to go, some area where it might be reasonable to attempt a forced landing.
Such training, however, is of little value at night for the obvious reason that there might be no terrain to see. Night flyers must be resigned to accept this added risk.
So where should a pilot head in the event of sudden engine silence at night? Many suggest heading for a dark area, the theory being that it is likely undeveloped and, therefore, reasonably and hopefully flat. Others suggest attempting to land in a developed area so that lights there might be used to avoid clobbering manmade obstacles. An illuminated area might help to make it possible to for a pilot to point his aircraft in the least threatening direction.
Frankly, I prefer to avoid the possibility of having to make such consequential decisions, and I do this by not flying at night. Does this mean that I am critical of those who do fly cross-country in single-engine airplanes at night? Of course not. I just hope that they forgive me for turning down their invitation to go along.
Barry Schiff has been an active certificated flight instructor since he was 18 years old.