“Night is one of the most delightful times to fly,” said Zoan Harclerode, AOPA Flight Training Experience Award National Best Flight Instructor for 2017. “Everything seems to calm down” as the sun sets.
“The air mass, the controllers, and the traffic. It’s a gorgeous time to be out, on most nights,” she said. Daylight saving time ends Nov. 5 at 2 a.m., and Harclerode shared some night flying tips to help prepare aviators for the time change.
Her normal flying area at the Rocky Mountain Flight Training Center is among the peaks and valleys of Colorado’s Front Range mountains. Weather conditions in the Rockies can be challenging because prevailing westerlies “crash down upon us in mountain waves” during the daytime before easing up at night. “Just after dinner everything calms down,” she noted, “and it’s beautiful.” Pilots flying near other mountainous areas might notice a similar wind pattern.
Harclerode noted that the illumination of cities, towns, and neighborhoods can provide valuable visual clues—especially if their lights suddenly vanish. “If you’re approaching a lighted area and then those lights start to disappear—you’re probably headed straight into a mountain.” Rising terrain can block objects in the background and the sudden change in scenery alerts pilots to immediately climb or turn.
Moisture also can be a signal for pilots seeking a metropolitan area because lights can glow on high clouds overhead and point them in the right direction.
Speaking of lights, Harclerode said the manner in which aircraft are illuminated can help pilots spot movement at night. “You can see traffic a lot further when people start to bring their lights on,” because of a moving aircraft’s beacon, strobes, navigation, and landing lights.
Harclerode said electronic flight bags are “marvelous” because they provide moving maps and terrain avoidance options, but they also bring their own potential for light pollution if the settings are too bright. “I have to caution my pilots to put their tablet on the lowest [light output] setting or the night vision setting and take out some of that white light so you can see so much more—and so much farther” outside of the cockpit.
Equipment is one thing, but pilots also need to prepare themselves for night flying, she added. “Come well-rested, well-hydrated, and well-nourished” for a night flight. Harclerode said hydration is an overlooked element to preserving good night vision. “Our eyes don’t see as well if they’re dry,” and contact lens or eyeglass-wearers should take particular note. “You won’t notice” a lack of visual acuity due to dryness or eye fatigue “until it’s too late,” she cautioned.
Harclerode reminded pilots to be vigilant about supplemental oxygen at altitudes of 5,000 feet or higher when flying at night. Pilots should plan ahead and make sure supplemental oxygen is on board if they anticipate night flight at or above that level. “It’s not like we can just take a big breath and scoop up more oxygen, you have to get it down to the cellular level.”
A visit to the high altitude chamber at Peterson Air Force Base convinced her how important it was to monitor and maintain good blood-oxygen levels after darkness sets in. “It’s amazing what happens to your color vision at night without the oxygen,” she noted. “Everything is just a series of black and whites but when you put on the oxygen at 6,000 feet, from the get-go, the colors and everything come alive on your charts. Your handwriting gets much more legible—at least it did for me—and I was definitely thinking more clearly.” She theorized that if pilots find themselves turning up the brightness and contrast on their instrument lights or handheld devices “they may be getting some hypoxic symptoms.”
Harclerode reminded pilots to count on their daytime flying skills and training because those guidelines apply regardless of lighting conditions. For example, positioning an aircraft in the landing pattern, interpreting instruments, and following procedures and checklists should be similar whether it's day or night. She noted that pilots experiencing a night flight for the first time “tend to go quiet and have a wonderful ‘ahhhh moment’ and then they realize they have to fly the airplane,” so she handles the flight controls for their first climb out before they take over.
“I love it as the sun comes down,” added Harclerode. “Certainly, the ground lights are beautiful and it seems like just about everything calms down. It’s just delightful.”