Orientation and Navigation
At night, it is usually difficult to see clouds and restrictions to visibility, particularly on dark nights or under overcast. The pilot flying under VFR must exercise caution to avoid flying into clouds or a layer of fog. Usually, the first indication of flying into restricted visibility conditions is the gradual disappearance of lights on the ground. If the lights begin to take on an appearance of being surrounded by a halo or glow, the pilot should use caution in attempting further flight in that same direction. Such a halo or glow around lights on the ground is indicative of ground fog. Remember that if a descent to land must be made through fog, smoke, or haze, the horizontal visibility is considerably less. Under no circumstances should a night flight be made during poor or marginal weather conditions.
The pilot should practice and acquire competency in straight-and-level flight, climbs and descents, level turns, climbing and descending turns, and steep turns. The pilot should also practice these maneuvers with all the flight deck lights turned off. This blackout training is necessary if the pilot experiences an electrical or instrument light failure. Training should also include using the navigation equipment and local NAVAIDs.
In spite of fewer references or checkpoints, night cross-country flights do not present particular problems if preplanning is adequate, and the pilot continues to monitor position, time estimates, and fuel consumption. The GPS is the most valuable instrument for day and night cross-country flying. For night cross-country flying, spare batteries or a GPS hooked to the aircraft electric system with a battery backup is recommended. NAVAIDs, if available, should also be used to assist in monitoring en route progress.
Crossing large bodies of water at night in single-engine aircraft is hazardous and not recommended by day or night. This is from the standpoint of landing (ditching) in the water, but especially at night because with little or no lighting the horizon blends with the water making depth perception and orientation difficult. During poor visibility conditions over water, the horizon becomes obscure and may result in a loss of orientation. Even on clear nights, the stars may be reflected on the water surface which could appear as a continuous array of lights making the horizon difficult to identify.
Lighted runways, buildings, or other objects may cause illusions when seen from different altitudes. At an altitude of 2,000 feet, a group of lights on an object may be seen individually; while at 5,000 feet or higher, the same lights could appear to be one solid light mass. These illusions may become quite acute with altitude changes and, if not overcome, could present problems in respect to approaches to lighted runways.
Approaches and Landings
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 to the pilot, sighting of the runway may be difficult until very close-in due to the maze of lights observed in the area. [Figure 12-12]
The pilot should 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 of the pilot 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, allow for 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.
Every effort should be made to 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 aircraft’s position along the base leg and final approach. A visual approach slope indicator (VASI) is an indispensable aid in alerting a pilot of too low of a glidepath. The typical VASI is set to 3° for the recommended aircraft approach. This 19 to 1 glide ratio is too low for a WSC aircraft. A normal glide ratio for WSC aircraft is 5 to 1, which is 11°, much higher than the normal 3° to 4° used by aircraft. Therefore, for WSC VASI final approaches both white lights should be visible. If a pilot sees red over white, or especially both reds, the approach is too low and altitude should be gained, or at least maintained to get above the normal VASI 3° to 4° approach at night. This steeper approach allows the WSC aircraft to glide to the runway and land safely in the event of engine failure. [Figure 12-13]
After turning onto the final approach and aligning the aircraft midway between the two rows of runway-edge lights, the pilot should note and correct for any wind drift. Throughout the final approach, pitch and power should be used to maintain a stabilized approach. Usually, halfway through the final approach, the landing light should be 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 usually does 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 approach and landings should be made in the same manner as in day landings as discussed in Chapter 11, Approaches and Landings. At night, the judgment of height, speed, and sink rate is impaired by the scarcity of observable objects in the landing area. The inexperienced pilot may have a tendency to round out too high until attaining familiarity with the proper height for the correct roundout. To aid in night landings, approach with power on to reduce the descent rate providing more time for the pilot to see the runway and start the roundout once the runway is visible. To aid in determining the proper roundout point, continue a constant approach descent until the landing lights reflect on the runway and tire marks on the runway can be clearly seen. At this point, the roundout should be started smoothly and the throttle gradually reduced to idle as the aircraft is touching down. [Figure 12-14]
During landings without the use of landing lights, the roundout 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 aircraft. This demands a smooth and very timely roundout, and requires that the pilot feel for the runway surface using power and pitch changes, as necessary, for the aircraft to settle slowly to the runway. Blackout landings should always be included in night pilot training as an emergency procedure.
Perhaps the pilot’s greatest concern about flying a single-engine aircraft 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, several important procedures and considerations to keep in mind are:
- Maintain positive control of the aircraft and establish the best glide configuration and airspeed. Turn the aircraft toward an airport or away from congested areas.
- Check to determine the cause of the engine malfunction, such as the position of fuel shutoff, 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 UNICOM. If already in radio contact with a facility, do not change frequencies unless instructed to change.
- 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 aircraft should be held minimum controlled airspeed until the ground is contacted.
- After landing, turn off all switches and evacuate the aircraft as quickly as possible.