When approaching the airport to enter the traffic pattern and land, it is important that the runway lights and other airport lighting be identified as early as possible. If the airport layout is unfamiliar, sighting of the runway may be difficult until very close-in due to the maze of lights observed in the area. [Figure 10-4] Fly toward the rotating beacon until the lights outlining the runway are distinguishable. To fly a traffic pattern of proper size and direction, the runway threshold and runway-edge lights must be positively identified. Once the airport lights are seen, these lights should be kept in sight throughout the approach.
Distance may be deceptive at night due to limited lighting conditions. A lack of intervening references on the ground and the inability to compare the size and location of different ground objects cause this. This also applies to the estimation of altitude and speed. Consequently, more dependence must be placed on flight instruments, particularly the altimeter and the airspeed indicator. When entering the traffic pattern, always give yourself plenty of time to complete the before landing checklist. If the heading indicator contains a heading bug, setting it to the runway heading is an excellent reference for the pattern legs.
Maintain the recommended airspeeds and execute the approach and landing in the same manner as during the day. A low, shallow approach is definitely inappropriate during a night operation. The altimeter and VSI should be constantly cross-checked against the airplane’s position along the base leg and final approach. A visual approach slope indicator (VASI) is an indispensable aid in establishing and maintaining a proper glide path. [Figure 10-5]
After turning onto the final approach and aligning the airplane midway between the two rows of runway-edge lights, note and correct for any wind drift. Throughout the final approach, use pitch and power to maintain a stabilized approach. Flaps are used the same as in a normal approach. Usually, halfway through the final approach, the landing light is turned on. Earlier use of the landing light may be necessary because of “Operation Lights ON” or for local traffic considerations. The landing light is sometimes ineffective since the light beam will usually not reach the ground from higher altitudes. The light may even be reflected back into the pilot’s eyes by any existing haze, smoke, or fog. This disadvantage is overshadowed by the safety considerations provided by using the “Operation Lights ON” procedure around other traffic.
The round out and touchdown is made in the same manner as in day landings. At night, the judgment of height, speed, and sink rate is impaired by the scarcity of observable objects in the landing area. An inexperienced pilot may have a tendency to round out too high until attaining familiarity with the proper height for the correct round out. To aid in determining the proper round out point, continue a constant approach descent until the landing lights reflect on the runway and tire marks on the runway can be seen clearly. At this point, the round out is started smoothly and the throttle gradually reduced to idle as the airplane is touching down. [Figure 10-6] During landings without the use of landing lights, the round out may be started when the runway lights at the far end of the runway first appear to be rising higher than the nose of the airplane. This demands a smooth and very timely round out and requires that the pilot feel for the runway surface using power and pitch changes, as necessary, for the airplane to settle slowly to the runway. Blackout landings should always be included in night pilot training as an emergency procedure.
Perhaps the greatest concern about flying a single-engine airplane at night is the possibility of a complete engine failure and the subsequent emergency landing. This is a legitimate concern, even though continuing flight into adverse weather and poor pilot judgment account for most serious accidents.
If the engine fails at night, there are several important procedures and considerations to keep in mind. They are as follows:
- Maintain positive control of the airplane and establish the best glide configuration and airspeed. Turn the airplane towards an airport or away from congested areas.
- Check to determine the cause of the engine malfunction, such as the position of fuel selectors, magneto switch, or primer. If possible, the cause of the malfunction should be corrected immediately and the engine restarted.
- Announce the emergency situation to air traffic control (ATC) or Universal Communications (UNICOM). If already in radio contact with a facility, do not change frequencies unless instructed to change.
- If the condition of the nearby terrain is known and is suitable for a forced landing, turn towards an unlighted portion of the area and plan an emergency forced landing to an unlighted portion.
- Consider an emergency landing area close to public access if possible. This may facilitate rescue or help, if needed.
- Maintain orientation with the wind to avoid a downwind landing.
- Complete the before landing checklist, and check the landing lights for operation at altitude and turn ON in sufficient time to illuminate the terrain or obstacles along the flightpath. The landing should be completed in the normal landing attitude at the slowest possible airspeed. If the landing lights are unusable and outside visual references are not available, the airplane should be held in level-landing attitude until the ground is contacted.
- After landing, turn off all switches and evacuate the airplane as quickly as possible.