By the end of October, most of the country has begun dealing with shorter days and colder weather—dramatically shorter and colder in the northern latitudes. Like most things in aviation, this brings both advantages and drawbacks.
Aircraft perform better in colder, denser air—but freezing winds on the ramp don’t encourage a thorough preflight. (In fact, between October and February the percentage of all accidents attributed to inadequate preflights is about one and one-half times higher than it is in July.) Winter weather also can threaten post-crash survival in search-and-rescue situations. Longer nights make it easier for pilots to maintain or regain night currency, something many don’t bother with while the sun doesn’t set until after 9:00 p.m.—but also make night currency more essential as flying after dark becomes harder to avoid.
As we’ve noted before, night currency shouldn’t be considered a senseless administrative burden. Even for experienced aviators, avoiding the hazards that accompany low-light conditions requires regular practice. Between seasons it’s easy to forget that optical illusions can lead to a dangerously low final approach, or that more rigorous flight planning is essential to avoiding all those hillsides and towers that can no longer be seen. Throw in false horizons, confused kinesthetics, and the risk of blundering into invisible clouds, and it’s no wonder that the regulations impose requirements for both career night experience for certificate applicants and recent flight at night for anyone who plans to carry passengers.
This affects the flight training industry both directly and indirectly. A typical year sees about a dozen instructional accidents at night in airplanes, plus a couple more in helicopters. That may not sound like a lot—until you stop to consider just how little flight training actually is conducted after dark. Ninety-five percent of nighttime instructional accidents are in VMC, which makes sense on two levels: The vast majority of all flight instruction (including instrument training) takes place in visual conditions, and those flights that do operate in IMC should adhere to instrument flight rules, keeping them safe from trees and towers. Nearly 20 percent are fatal, double the rate for instructional accidents overall. That’s not surprising, either, since night crashes generally suffer greater lethality than those in daytime VMC.
The share precipitated by engine stoppages—whether from lack of fuel, mechanical breakdown, or unknown causes—is almost twice as high as in training accidents during the day. Presumably this isn’t because the aircraft are afraid of the dark, but because the instructors have fewer good options for coping with the ensuing emergency. Taking off, landing, and going around are well represented in all light conditions, but they certainly don’t get any easier after sundown. And like their counterparts on personal flights, they’re marked by an excess number of collisions with objects both stationary and moving: birds and other wildlife, power lines and other structures, and terrain ranging from hillsides to farm fields.
Flight school operators also need to protect their fleets from careless or out-of-practice renters—and, ideally, cultivate a market for recurrent night training among their certificate-holding clients.
Here are a few ideas that strike us as candidates for the title of Best Practices:
Don’t allow night cross-countries by renters who aren’t instrument-rated. Night flight can easily become instrument flight, whether it’s because of cloud penetration, ground fog, or simply the need to traverse an area with minimal ground lighting. IFR pilots will be much better able to handle these, and they should know how to plan a flight to avoid unseen obstructions.
Along with this comes the need to stress that getting the aircraft back on schedule is of secondary importance. Abiding by the limits on flight conditions set out in the rental agreement is paramount.
Require flight plans on all dual VFR cross-countries. That means filing and opening them! We’ve written before about a CFIT accident involving a school airplane from AOPA’s home airport. Search-and-rescue efforts weren’t initiated for more than 12 hours because no flight plan had been filed— and when they began, the searchers didn’t know where to look. Frankly, we think that requiring flight plans on all night flights outside the traffic pattern isn’t a bad idea, if only to get students in the habit of thinking of this as part of their normal routine.
Schedule formal night refresher training for your instructors, especially those who didn’t maintain night currency over the summer. There have been accidents in which CFIs not only didn’t recognize that an aircraft was below its approach path and descending into the trees, but also became disoriented trying to correct that descent. And don’t keep this a secret. Letting your clients know that you require your instructors to take recurrent training sets a good example—and might inspire at least some to reassess their own need for the same.