The shorter days of autumn and winter create an opportunity for pilots to see the world from a new perspective, and night flying can be truly spectacular. Being well-prepared for the aeronautical challenges that night flying poses will make the experience more rewarding, enjoyable, and safe.
The differences between flying in sunlight and in darkness go a bit beyond the obvious, and can even vary a bit from one location to another. Flying at night over mountainous terrain poses some challenges that are different from flying at night over a lowland region (avoiding unlit terrain being one of them). There are several important considerations to bear in mind regardless of location, and AOPA has collected much of this important information about night flying in a handy online reference.
Night vision also is more vulnerable to the effects of hypoxia (reduced oxygen in the blood), carbon monoxide, smoking, drugs or alcohol, and even poor nutrition that leads to deficiency of vitamins A and C—all of which can compromise night vision. So you’ll want to be well-fed, be well-rested, and allow at least 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the low light of night before you begin your flight. Avoid looking at bright lights while your eyes adjust to darkness, and avoid rushing your preflight preparations.
Because depth perception suffers, many pilots misjudge their height above the runway during night landings. Taxiway and runway lights also can contribute to misjudging the roundout and flare. Other common optical illusions include autokenisis, which is caused by staring at a single light against a dark background for more than a few moments. The light can appear to begin moving, even if it is stationary. Maintaining that constant scan helps avoid this illusion. Pilots flying at night also can fall victim to false horizons, usually when the actual horizon is obscured and artificial lights on the ground are mistaken for stars. The potential consequences of mistaking ground lights for stars are obviously pretty significant.
Equipment requirements also differ between day and night, and while the FAA does not specifically require flashlights, you’ll want two of those, including a spare as backup. Many aviation flashlights are designed to provide both white and red light, and that is handy because you’ll want to use white light during preflight inspection, and red light once you are inside the cockpit because it does not inhibit your night vision. As for what the FAA does require, 14 CFR 91.205 is where you’ll find the minimum equipment requirements that apply to both day and night (along with visual or instrument flight rules). Note that the required equipment list for night flights expands to include position and anticollision lights, spare fuses, and “an adequate source of electrical energy for all installed electrical and radio equipment." Your training airplane, because it is operated for hire, also must have a landing light, and your instructor will have you practice landing with and without it.
Also bear in mind that extra fuel is required when flying at night. The FAA requires a 45-minute reserve for night VFR flights in fixed-wing airplanes, while the daytime minimum is 30 minutes.
Requirements for recent pilot experience also change when the sun goes down (technically, from the end of evening civil twilight to the beginning of morning civil twilight, as published in the American Air Almanac and converted to local time). Once you have your private pilot certificate, you will need to have completed three takeoffs and landings at night within the preceding 90 days to legally carry passengers. More information on how the FAA defines “night” can be found here, and the FAA offers additional tips and advice for night flying in this publication.
While night flying can be a little more challenging, the rewards are significant. You’ll need to do at least three hours, including a cross-country, to earn a private pilot certificate, so be prepared and enjoy it.