Southwestern nights have a beauty all their own. I recall learning once in a college astronomy class that the most stars visible at one time to the naked eye is about 4,000. Surely the person who counted them must have been gazing at the sky from a vantage point in the Southwest. When turquoise skies turn red and then black and the stars grace heaven's canopy, it makes one long for a campfire and a guitaror to go flying.
On a pristine, clear night, it's hard to stay on the ground. Why, I think, should I remain earthbound when I could be looking at the stars or a rising golden moon from my winged platform high in the sky? From that lofty perch, suspended between earth and sky, I can look down on the splendor of a brightly-lit city or outward into the awesome face of a pitch black night.
If we choose to fly after the sun bids us good night, we must make preparation, be proficient and proceed with caution.
Night flying requires special preparation that takes into account the pilot, the aircraft, and the environment.
Pilots should be aware that their eyes do not function as effectively at night. At the back center of the eye are light-sensitive nerves called cones that provide color and distant vision in daylight in a narrow field of about 10 degrees when looking directly at objects. Cones do not function well in darkness with color and detail is not as vivid as during the day. Other light sensitive nerves called rods surround the cones and provide peripheral vision in shades of gray both night and day.
At night there is a blind spot in the center of the visual field. To effectively utilize the rods, the pilot must use off center viewing to see an object. This is accomplished by looking about 10 degrees off-center of the target
Night adaptation of the eyes is another consideration. It requires thirty minutes for the rods to adapt to darkness, and bright light should be avoided for this time period prior to a flight. After thirty minutes in darkened conditions, the rods are 100,000 times more sensitive to light than when exposed to bright light. An example of night adaptation is walking into a dark movie theater and not being able to see objects at first, but after thirty minutes vision is much better. Bright white light in the cockpit can hinder night vision. Red light preserves night vision but interferes with colors on the charts and instruments. A panel lit with dim white light is best.
Hypoxia is a lack of oxygen in the body that prevents it from functioning properly. Hypoxia increases with altitude, and the retina of the eye is the first organ to be affected. This can happen as low as 5,000 feet. Smoking intensifies hypoxia, as the carbon monoxide from cigarettes attaches more readily to the blood's hemoglobin than oxygen. Smoking can take up to 10% of the hemoglobin's oxygen-carrying space and lower a pilot's altitude tolerance. In such a condition a pilot flying at 10,000 feet would have a physiological altitude equivalent to 15,000.
Prior to a night flight, make sure all the aircraft lights are working. This includes the beacon, nav lights, landing light and panel lights. Inspect the alternator belt for tightness.
A few months ago on a night cross-country with a student, we passed through Class C airspace at Albuquerque without a problem. Returning about an hour later, approach could not receive our transponder. Turning final at Albuquerque, all electrical power was lost and the panel went black. Our flashlights on board came to the rescue. A check of the alternator belt revealed it to be loose and the alternator not turning The possibility of a darkened panel is the reason you need to carry two flashlights at night. A large, bright flashlight is good for the preflight inspection and a smaller one is best for the cockpit.
Extensive preflight preparation is to be taken seriously for a night flight over the vast expanse of the Southwest. Plan the route so as to avoidas much as possibleflying over high mountains with few places to land. This week, I flew at night from Albuquerque to Pagosa Springs, Colorado. During the flight north, I flew west of the Jemez Mountains and their moderately high peaks (around 11,000 feet). On the return trip I decided to fly a direct route over the mountains. With the mountains below me in the blackness, I was more uncomfortable than on the trip up over a more populated route.
On a night cross-country, it is wise to use a low altitude en route instrument chart and fly the MEA (minimum en route altitude) along airways. The MEA will provide 2,000 feet obstacle clearance over mountains plus navigation reception and communication reception with an Air Route Traffic Control Center for flight following.
Preflight planning for night flying certainly must include a close look at the weather. If it's going to be cloudy or if there are thunderstorms around, don't go unless you are instrument rated, instrument current, and on an instrument flight plan. You cannot see clouds at night until you enter them. I once Flew a Civil Air Patrol night search mission looking for a missing twin between Santa Fe, NM and Dalhart, TX. The route east was in good weather, and the beacon at Dalhart was visible for 50 miles. On the return, low clouds were encountered over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just east of Santa Fe. The lights of the city appeared and disappeared as I descended as low as the terrain would permit to keep the lights in sight. Just as it appeared a 180-degree turn to maintain VFR conditions and a request for an instrument clearance would be necessary, the clouds allowed a clear view of the city and I continued on. The clouds were unexpected, but that is the way it happens. Without an instrument rating, such an encounter with clouds at night would have been scary.
Don't cut fuel reserves close on a night cross country. The night VFR fuel minimum is 45 minutes. However, a fuel minimum of one hour and thirty minutes will give you a peace of mind that will make night flying much more enjoyable.
Always file a flight plan. A fight plan is to aid in search and rescue if an off-airport landing is necessary en route. Don't neglect to file a flight plan because you are planning to use center flight following. Remember, flight following is on a workload-permitting basis and sometimes the center is unable to accommodate you. On the flight to Pagosa Springs mentioned earlier, Denver Center abruptly canceled flight following about halfway there.
You will be safer flying at night if currency and proficiency are maintained. Night currency requires three landings to a full stop in the same category and class of aircraft within the preceding 90 days in order to carry passengers. The currency requirements may be met, but you may still not be proficient. Night proficiency is up to you. If you haven't flown much at night, or if it has been a long time, then take the inexpensive route (compared to an accident) and fly with an instructor for a few night hours.
Proficiency requires that you understand airport lighting, including pilot controlled lighting and visual approach lighting such as a VAS (Visual Approach Slope Indicator), PAPI (Precision Approach Path Indicator), and a PASI (Pulsating Approach Slope Indicator).
Landings need regular practice. It is common for pilots to begin their flare too high at night. Wait until you see the runway clearly in the landing lights and begin a normal flare. Another good visual cue is the runway lights. First, note the position of the lights in your field of vision when you taxi on to the runway for takeoff. That is how they will look when you touch down. On final approach, align the aircraft with the centerline by aiming directly between the runway lights. Focus toward the far end of the of the runway on short final, and the runway lights will begin to rise in your view. Or, to put it another way, you will begin to settle into the lights. Just before the lights present the picture you saw at takeoff, start your flare. With a little practice you will get the timing right and make good landings. Try landing a few times without the landing light, so if it should burn out, you will have no problem returning to earth.
Night flying requires more dependence on flight instruments, so some regular time under the hood during the day is helpful if you plan to fly at night. When descending in a traffic pattern with no lights on the ground for reference, a high sink rate can develop. Pay special attention to the attitude indicator, VSI and altimeter during such descending turns. Monitor the attitude and airspeed indicators during climbing turns in the traffic pattern so as not to overbank, and allow the airspeed to decrease to near a stall in the turn.
Due to a lack of visual references, it is more difficult to judge your altitude on a long straight in final. Closely observe the attitude and airspeed indicators and the altimeter. If there are sequenced flashing lights, select high intensity to help you locate the airport then turn them to low intensity with three clicks of the mike on the designated frequency so they will not be blinding on short final. Try to avoid turning the approach lights on high when another aircraft is on short final. The other pilot will appreciate it. At tower-controlled airports, you can request the tower to dim the lights. In instrument conditions, especially during daylight, the bright lights help, but on a clear night, the brightness hinders the landing.
Proceed with Caution
Once you are current at night flying and have made adequate preparations for a particular flight, all that remains is to proceed with caution. There is no question that the risk factor is higher for night flying due to the limited visibility. It is no time for chances or shortcuts.
The most important consideration for night flying in the mountains is altitude, altitude, altitude. Inattention to altitude can spell disaster even close to home. I am based at Coronado Airport (4AC). Fifteen miles west lies Double Eagle II, and near the latter airport are some low hillsabout 500 feet above the airport and a mile from the runway.
One summer night in perfectly still air, I departed Coronado with a student and headed to Double EagIe II. We discussed the fact that our climb should be to 6,800 feet, the pattern altitude of our destination. Instead of 6,800 feet, the student leveled off at 5,800 feet and mentioned his altitude as 6,800 feet. I looked over at the altimeter and saw the 800 foot indicator but did not observe that the thousand foot needle pointing to five instead of six.
We continued contentedly on, observing the beauty of Albuquerque by night and enjoying the smooth ride. As we approached our destination, my attention was focused on a row of high powered lights at a detention center beyond the airport. The lights suddenly disappeared and my first reaction was, That's strange. What's happening here? Then, in a split second, without even looking at the altimeter, 1 realized what was happening, pulled back on the control wheel and just cleared the hills by a few feet. Alone, and with little experience, the student would have been a victim of CFIT (controlled flight into terrain).
Flying the Southwestern skies at night has more advantages that just the beauty it affords. On summer nights, the skies are coolerand therefore smoother. The aircraft performs better, and there is usually a lot less traffic. So, fly up there and make friends with the night sky. But be vigilant, so you will remain safe and be able to return there often.
Cordell Akin is a CFII, MEI with a total of 10,000 hours and 3,000 hours as a flight instructor. He spent 15 years in East Africa flying a C-185 and a P-210. He is the owner of Akin Air at Coronado Airport in Albuquerque.