Flying at night requires additional pilot skills and a private pilot certificate. It is possible to have a private pilot certificate with a “Night Flight Prohibited” limitation if the pilot did not complete night flight training and is restricted from night flight, similar to that for Sport Pilots. This is an option for pilots who want a private pilot certificate but do not plan to fly at night. If the pilot first obtains the private certificate with the night limitation, the limitation can be removed after completing the private pilot WSC night training. The training that must be accomplished at night for WSC private pilot night flying privileges is:
- One cross-country flight over 75 nautical miles (NM) total distance, and
- Ten takeoffs and landings (each landing involving a flight in the traffic pattern) at an airport.
Sport pilots or private pilots with the night limitation are not allowed to fly at night; however, they can fly after sunset during civil twilight until night if the aircraft is properly equipped with position lights. Civil twilight is when the sun is less than 6° below the horizon, about 30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset, and varies by latitude throughout the year. It is the time when there is enough light outdoors for activities to be conducted without additional lighting. [Figure 12-1]
If it is overcast and visibility is inadequate, good pilot judgment would dictate not to fly after sunset.
Equipment and Lighting
Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 91 specifies the minimum aircraft equipment required for flight during civil twilight and night flight. This equipment includes only position lights. Normal standard category aircraft are required to have this additional equipment as would also be recommended for WSC night flight, including anti-collision light, landing lights, adequate electrical source for lights, and spare fuses. The standard instruments required for instrument flight under 14 CFR part 91 are a valuable asset for aircraft control at night but are not required.
Aircraft position lights are required on all aircraft from sunset to sunrise in an arrangement similar to those on boats and ships. A red light is positioned on the left wing tip, a green light on the right wing tip, and a white light on the tail. [Figures 12-2 and 12-3]
This arrangement allows the pilot to determine the general direction of movement of other aircraft in flight. If both position lights of another aircraft are observed, a red light on the right and a green light on the left, the aircraft is flying toward the pilot and could be on a collision course. Similarly, a green light on the right and a red light on the left indicate the aircraft is flying in the same direction as the pilot observing the lights. Landing lights are not only useful for taxi, takeoffs, and landings, but also provide an additional means by which aircraft can be seen at night by other pilots. [Figure 12-4]
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has initiated a voluntary pilot safety program called “Operation Lights On.” The “lights on” idea is to enhance the “see and be seen” concept of averting collisions in the air and on the ground and to reduce the potential for bird strikes. Pilots are encouraged to turn on their landing lights when operating within 10 miles of an airport. This is for both day and night or in conditions of reduced visibility. This should also be done in areas where flocks of birds may be expected.
Although turning on aircraft lights supports the “see and be seen” concept, pilots should not become complacent about keeping a sharp lookout for other aircraft. Most aircraft lights blend in with stars or city lights at night and go unnoticed unless a conscious effort is made to distinguish them from other lights.
Before beginning a night flight, carefully consider personal equipment that should be readily available during the flight. At least one reliable flashlight is recommended as standard equipment on all night flights. Remember to place a spare set of batteries in the flight kit. A spare flashlight is the better choice, eliminating the need to change batteries during flight.
A D-cell size flashlight with a bulb switching mechanism that can be used for white or red light is preferable. The white light is used while performing the preflight visual inspection on the ground, and the red light is used when performing flight deck operations. Since the red light is nonglaring, it does not impair night vision. Some pilots prefer two flashlights, one with a white light for preflight and the other a penlight with a red light. The latter can be suspended by a string around the neck to ensure the light is always readily available. Be aware that if a red light is used for reading an aeronautical chart, the red features of the chart will not show up.
Aeronautical charts are essential for night cross-country flight and, if the intended course is near the edge of the chart, the adjacent chart should also be available. The lights of cities and towns can be seen at surprising distances at night, and if this adjacent chart is not available to identify those landmarks, confusion could result. Regardless of the equipment used, organization of the flight deck eases the burden on the pilot and enhances safety. [Figure 12-5]
Airport and Navigation Lighting Aids
The lighting systems used for airports, runways, obstructions, and other visual aids at night are other important aspects of night flying.
Lighted airports located away from congested areas can be identified readily at night by the lights outlining the runways. Airports located near or within large cities are often difficult to identify in the maze of lights. It is important to know the exact location of an airport relative to the city, and also be able to identify these airports by the characteristics of their lighting pattern.
Aeronautical lights are designed and installed in a variety of colors and configurations, each having its own purpose. Although some lights are used only during low ceiling and visibility conditions, this discussion includes only the lights that are fundamental to visual flight rules (VFR) night operation.
It is recommended that prior to a night flight, and particularly a cross-country night flight, the pilot check the availability and status of lighting systems at the destination airport. This information can be found on aeronautical charts and in the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD). The status of each facility can be determined by reviewing pertinent Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs).
A rotating beacon is used to indicate the location of most airports. The beacon rotates at a constant speed, thus producing what appears to be a series of light flashes at regular intervals. These flashes may be one or two different colors that are used to identify various types of landing areas. For example:
- Lighted civilian land airports—alternating white and green
- Lighted civilian water airports—alternating white and yellow
- Lighted military airports—alternating white and green, but are differentiated from civil airports by dual peaked (two quick) white flashes, then green
Beacons producing red flashes indicate obstructions or areas considered hazardous to aerial navigation. Steady burning red lights are used to mark obstructions on or near airports and sometimes to supplement flashing lights on en route obstructions. High intensity flashing white lights are used to mark some supporting structures of overhead transmission lines that stretch across rivers, chasms, and gorges. These high intensity lights are also used to identify tall structures, such as chimneys and towers.
As a result of technological advancements in aviation, runway lighting systems have become quite sophisticated to accommodate takeoffs and landings in various weather conditions. However, the pilot whose flying is limited to VFR needs to be concerned only with the following basic lighting of runways and taxiways.
The basic runway lighting system consists of two straight parallel lines of runway-edge lights defining the lateral limits of the runway. These lights are aviation white, although aviation yellow may be substituted for a distance of 2,000 feet from the far end of the runway to indicate a caution zone. At some airports, the intensity of the runway-edge lights can be adjusted to satisfy the individual needs of the pilot. The length limits of the runway are defined by straight lines of lights across the runway ends. At some airports, the runway threshold lights are aviation green, and the runway end lights are aviation red. At many airports, the taxiways are also lighted. A taxiway-edge lighting system consists of blue lights that outline the usable limits of taxi paths. See the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge for additional information on airport lighting.