Learning night flying techniques brings up special challenges for students who are more familiar with daytime operations. To put anxiety at ease, Berkshire Aviation Enterprises certificated flight instructor and ground instructor Jason Archer shares a few tips that have worked for his students at Walter J. Koladza Airport in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
Archer, who helps run a room of Redbird flight simulators at EAA AirVenture’s popular Pilot Proficiency Center, said the tips are culled from what his students have experienced during their first few night flights.
“Ask your instructor if you can just sit in the airplane one evening before your maiden night flight,” said Archer. “It will give you a chance to experience the cockpit lighting (or lack thereof), and check out the aircraft’s outside lights. Just don't leave the master [switch] on too long or it will kill the battery.” You also could ride with a fellow pilot friend on his or her night flight, or take a back seat with another student and instructor. Tagging along gives you “a chance to see what it’s like without the added responsibility of the one doing the flying.”
Archer said to “give yourself more time for even the easiest of tasks,” because “everything about flying at night is more difficult.” For example, preflight the aircraft before dark or pull it into a well-lit hangar, if possible. In the cockpit, make sure to organize everything you need and keep it handy.
“It almost goes without saying, but let there always be light, just not too much and, of course, in the right place,” he explained. Have more than one flashlight easily accessible. Batteries can die and bulbs tend to burn out at the worst possible moment. Consider wearing a headlamp to keep your hands free. “Wherever you look, there will be light and it leaves your hands available to tackle charts, write down the ATIS, and play with those cool aircraft buttons and switches.” Also, make sure you know how to control the instrument panel’s brightness as well as the intensity of portable electronic flight bags. “We all love our EFBs and glass panel displays but at night those panels that are perfectly illuminated during the day will shine like the sun,” he said. Generally, the dimmer the portables are, the better.
“In the air, fly at a higher altitude than you would during the day,” Archer recommended. Not only will you have a stunning view of terra firma to help you stay oriented, “but that higher altitude gives you more time should a problem occur.”
Archer said first-time night flyers “will be struck by the change in, and sometimes the loss of, outside visual references compared to daytime operations,” so a key to safe night flight is to “fly the airplane with the help of your instruments.” He said it's vital to get familiar with a six pack of instruments or its digital equivalent before you need them.
“Factor the motion of the heavens into your weather briefing,” Archer said. You may not be an astronomer, but why not spend time outside looking at the night sky before your flight? That’s how the aviation pioneers did it, and it helped many navigate through a dark landscape devoid of big city lights and other familiar visual aids. Don’t forget to “consider the phase of moon during your flight. You’ll be amazed at just how bright a full moon can be. On the flip side, you’ve never seen dark until you've flown during a new moon with a high overcast sky.”
The big takeaway, said Archer, is that “the airplane doesn't know it’s dark, but you certainly will.” Using your depth perception during landing, trying to find your way among a sea of taxiway lights, listening to how the airplane sounds, and learning how to use your eyes at night will be more challenging and seem different at first. “Give yourself time and patience as you acclimate to the joys of night flying.”