“I’ve owned 41 airplanes. A few of them would talk with me.
There’s a spirit in anything, I think, into which we weave our soul.
Not many pilots talk about it, but they think about it
in the quiet dark of a night flight.”
-Richard D. Bach
(Pilot, author, philosopher)
You may tell people that you don’t fly much at night because you favor the panoramic view of a sun-swept vista, that you can see other airplanes and weather more easily during the daytime, or you might simply mumble something about the troublesome night-landing regulation. Most of us have had contemplative moments while flying; many in the quiet dark. But it’s no secret why the night column in your logbook lists a much smaller total than the day column: it’s because The Boogie Man comes out at night and nothing good happens after midnight…… or does it?
We Don’t Need Convincing
Most of us prefer to fly in the sunshine because we agree with these maxims. Certainly the sun-swept vista one, and we recognize the after-midnight adage as a hard-learned matter of record. And the Boogie Man is just another name for our fight-or-flee DNA that lets us imagine bumps in the night and “benefit” from our adrenal glands. In addition to the emotional justifications for flying when it’s daylight, there is conclusive evidence that our bodies must be exposed to natural light at regular intervals to function properly. And the dangers of operating an aircraft on the backside of the clock – during the “sleep side” of our circadian rhythm – are undeniable. Okay, so we don’t need convincing to avoid the dark. But, to deny ourselves the night is an unnecessary restriction on the utility of our airplane. The airplane doesn’t care that it’s dark; it’s all about us, our senses and our adrenal glands. Night flying is simply another category of flying, like instrument, and should be treated as such. This includes training, proficiency and recent experience.
No person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise, unless within the preceding 90 days that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise, and–…The required takeoffs and landings were performed in an aircraft of the same category, class, and type (if a type rating is required). The Fed’s are a bit more clinical than Bach.
If you haven’t flown for a while, it’s common to be anxious. And, just as we feel behind the airplane after an absence, so it is when we fly at night. Two reasons stand out; we fly less often at night, and it takes more effort to gather and process information from our main sense, vision. As we get older, driving after dark requires glasses and slower speeds. And, for many of us, the issues we face while driving at night also apply to night flying: fatigue, visual acuity and depth perception. Additionally, reading charts, finding switches and avoiding weather are factors that change when we fly at night. There are advantages to the night, however; it’s generally cooler, the ride is often better, there’s less traffic so direct routing is likely, and, if the weather is good, you can see towns and airports from far away.
The first time I ever rode in an airplane was at night and it was great. During training for my private, I wasn’t any more anxious at night than the day, and felt no more behind the plane than in daytime. Then, as a teenage private pilot, most of my flying was single-engine at night. It didn’t seem more risky because I was bullet-proof, and the back side of my circadian clock was the same as the front side; when you’re a teen, sleep is optional. All-night cross-countries were flown in every direction: Michigan to New York, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma and Colorado. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Fortunately, I outgrew that no-risk, bullet-proof feeling and by the time I entered the Air Force, I had enough experience to know better.
When the USAF Pilot Training syllabus called for night flying, my vision had deteriorated and I was wearing “corrective lenses” for distance vision. My instructor was from San Diego, so our night cross-country in the T-37 was from Phoenix to southern California. The T-37 cockpit lighting was quite poor and wearing glasses was disorienting. I was accustomed to them when the next phase of training in the T-38 arrived, making it less of a burden. In the F-16, we flew mostly during the day and our attention was directed at the HUD and outside of the jet. At night, along with the other nighttime visual perception considerations, there were issues with the air-to-air radar reflecting on the canopy. Other than that, visibility and night switchology was outstanding.
Not that the visibility out the pointy end of an airliner is poor, but it’s very different from the visibility in a fighter and it’s worse than many GA airplanes. Once away from the ground in the MD-80, looking outside is secondary to monitoring the ten-thousand gauges in the cockpit of this legacy (an affectionate way of saying older) airliner. Fortunately, the cockpits of most T&T airplanes are modern, well-lighted and have instrument clusters combined or arranged very logically; similar to a “modern” airliner. Even so, we face issues at night.
Having spent about 3,500 hours flying at night, the Boogie Man and I are old friends – though the affiliation was not always harmonious. I’ve had to land on an unlighted runway, I missed a taxiway at a tiny GA airport in the middle of the night, due to inop landing and taxi lights, and I got the nose stuck in soft ground. I have flown into a small, but towering, cumulus illuminated only by moonlight, had St Elmo’s fire so thick I couldn’t see through it and had a cloud-to-aircraft lightning strike in which a compression shock wave blew out the right motor. That’s why some of the lights in the cockpit are labeled as thunderstorm lights, by the way. Not to keep from blowing out your motors; you turn them on and they illuminate the cockpit so as to lessen the effects of lightning flashes on our night vision. This allows us to see controls and switches after the flash, while we catch our breath or clean our shorts. Perhaps we should rename them “time-to-land” switches – if we need to use thunderstorm lights, we might rather be on the ground than in the air. Although, the most difficult portion of a night trip can be when we’re on the ground, taxiing on large or unfamiliar airports. This is especially true during low visibility or when surfaces are wet and dark. Painted lines become invisible, making turns on a poorly-lighted taxiway difficult, and extra care must be taken to avoid incursions; all good reasons to slow our pace at night.
It can be enjoyable to depart in the pre-dawn darkness, on the front side of our circadian rhythm, knowing that the sun will rise soon. But an evening departure in which the sun has set, not to be seen for the duration of our flight and leaving us entering the back side of our clock, can be unsettling and present more risk if not prepared. The disadvantages of fatigue, loss of visual clues, and unfamiliarity with both the controls and suitability of artificial lighting, can become an overload if weather, low fuel or an aircraft system malfunction develops. You could say that flying during the night and day are the same. You could pretend that you are bullet-proof and deny the existence of Murphy’s Law, bad luck and the Boogie Man. Preparation and respect for the risks will temper the wrath of these demons, freeing us to enjoy the night….. and to contemplate; like Bach.
Reflect, Listen, Log It
Sit in your hangar with the lights off and re-familiarize yourself with the lighting controls of your airplane; you should be able to find things just as you can in the daytime–slow down and make the switch movements more deliberate. Make sure your navigation, landing and taxi lights, rotating beacon and/or strobes are working. Then, go do a couple of night full-stop or stop-and-goes at your home field before leaving the pattern. Next, venture out to an airport within thirty minutes or so and do another full-stop. Then, head home for the final landing; log it in the night column in your logbook. This warm-up will help prepare you for a two or three-hour night cross-country in which you may reflect, listen to the plane and, if it speaks to you, weave it into your soul. Perhaps good things can happen when we don’t conform to the ritual of daytime flying.
Richard Bach reported that the near-death experience of his plane crash inspired him to finish Part Four of his previously-three-part novella. In 2014, Jonathan Livingston Seagull: The Complete Edition, was reissued and includes Part Four.