Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Dichotomous Night

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
30 Aug 2016 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - D38 (Canandaigua, NY) - SDC 1.6 1580.1

Smooth air, significantly reduced radio chatter, twinkling starlight overhead, and the ability to spot other airplanes miles away without effort - these are the wonderful benefits of night flying. Flying at night can be a joy, one of the most peaceful experiences a pilot can have.

But if aviation is inherently unforgiving, nighttime conditions make it even more so. Risk of hitting deer lurking on a darkened runway or the challenges of selecting a suitable landing site in the event of an emergency increase dramatically. Though the risk of engine failure is generally statistically low, the consequences of one occurring at night can be dire.

Hence, the old joke about how to manage an off-airport emergency landing at night: aim for the dark spot and, when close to the ground, flip on the landing light. If you don't like what you see, turn it off again. Ray tells a story about his mentor having a nighttime engine failure decades ago. He walked away from the forced landing and returned the next day to see that he'd missed a large oil storage tank by mere feet, disaster held at bay by a tenuous thread of pure, dumb, luck.

Some pilots absolutely love night flying and indulge themselves whenever possible, taking comfort in the fact that adverse events are rare. Others have sworn it off entirely owing to the seriousness of the consequences should an unusual event occur. My comfort level lies somewhere in between. I will fly at night, but generally over known terrain. With few exceptions, this limits my nighttime flying to the relatively flat terrain between the Lake Ontario shore and the Finger Lakes, a region centered around the I-90 corridor between Buffalo and Syracuse. I also prefer excellent visibility on moonlit nights. Though instrument rated, my cockpit lighting is not terrific and night IFR has absolutely zero appeal for me. Though I have managed a cloud or two while en route, departing with the intention of nighttime IFR is outside my comfort level.

In order to be legally current to carry passengers at night, a pilot needs to have conducted three take-offs and landings (full stop) at least one hour after sunset within 90 days. Though I do not fly often at night (I have logged 71.0 hours total, about 4.5% of my overall flight experience), I like to maintain night currency because it keeps my skills sharp and it provides flexibility should a flight with passengers return to the airport later than planned. As the days grow shorter with the approach of autumn, maintaining currency and proficiency at night becomes increasingly important.

After a late evening session of pattern work, stalls, steep turns, and simulated engine out landings, the hour grew late enough that I decided to keep flying to extend my night currency. My home at the Williamson-Sodus Airport has an issue with deer, so I do most of my nighttime practice at other airports. Sometimes, I do round-robin night flights: Oswego County Airport (FZY) to Finger Lakes Regional Airport (0G7) to Williamson-Sodus Airport.

This time, I chose the Canandaigua Airport. It was nice to be there by choice for once, instead of under duress (see here, here, and most recently, here). As the glow of twilight faded, I waited on the taxiway for the elapsed time since sunset to exceed one hour.

Another personal rule: I only do nighttime landings on runways with visual glideslope indicators. I did a lot of my nighttime training on runway 23 at Three Rivers (HAI) which did not have one. However, whereas Three Rives was in the middle of a cornfield with nothing to hit on the way down to the runway, many of the Upstate NY airports I fly to have terrain and trees lurking directly below the glide path and a little help staying on or above it is a good thing.

With the mission accomplished, I departed for Williamson-Sodus in smooth nighttime air, enjoying the gift of night flight for a few minutes before being drawn back down by the lights of home. During post-flight inspection of the Warrior, I discovered that many insects gave their lives that evening for me to extend my night currency. I paid them silent tribute while removing their crunchy remains from the leading edges of my wings.


  1. Always nice to be night current! I hoped to regain mine prior to the Boston trip, but never got a chance. Nearly needed it, too. If you do any sort of traveling via small airplane I think it's always a good thing to have, whether you intend to fly at night or not.

    And hey, look at this - I'm slowly (oh so slowly) starting to catch up on blog posts!

    1. Agreed. I view it as insurance. I don't generally take passengers out at night because I don't think that non-aviators really have a way to assess the risk to themselves. But I have definitely made a number of night landings with passengers because on evenings when we did not return to the airport as quickly as I intended. I think it's better to have the capability to be out after dark than to race against the sun. I think the latter could create errors and more risk.

  2. Good job keeping night current. I haven't been night current since November 2013. It's getting to be that time of year when I could really use the night op's. Maybe this month I'll get out there and get it done.

    1. Thanks, Gary. I was already night current, but this was a good opportunity to extend that currency. I'm surprised to hear that it's been so long for you. It's way easier to take care of right now that it was in the middle of summer and, for the same reason, more useful to have this time of year, too!