Into the Night
By Dr. Chuck Crinnian, MD
The long hot summer days (and nights) are almost over. The sun sets a bit earlier. The monsoon activity is diminishing. Have you thought about night flying? Your aircraft came with landing lights, cockpit lights, nav lights, so why not use them? One pilot I met told me his aircraft had an automatic night sensing device that made the engine run rougher. Another told me that his aircraft had special night landing gear that assures a good bounce on night landings. What these pilots have is a personal physiologic sensor that modifies perceptions under low light conditions. Pilot physiology makes night operations a challenge, not the aircraft.
Pilot physiologic factors are in play even before you start the aircraft. Typically, the pilot has been up for the day and fatigue is a potential issue. Fatigue can contribute to poor judgment, slowed reaction time, inattention, and ease of distraction. The simple antidote is just don't try it. Plan ahead and assure that you have adequate rest, hydration, and nutrition prior to any planned night operation.
The dark environment is a set up for visual illusions and a loss of visual acuity. Landing into a "dark hole" will create a flat approach and set up for a touchdown short of the runway or a flat approach and balloon/bounce. Your best vision is no longer in the center where the color receptors are, but just off to the side. There is a loss of depth perception, as well. Night vision deteriorates above 5000' unless supplemental oxygen is used. Add to this any lighting or equipment failures and one has a real adverse environment to function in.
The best offense to a harsh environment is a good defense. That defense is a night preflight. Check all lights and their breakers. Know where the switches and breakers are in the dark. Practice this. A focused review of the terrain at the departure, en-route and arrival airports is essential. Know the obstacles and their locations, heights, and orientation to the flight path. Have a working flashlight and a back-up. Study the AFD and know how to activate the pilot controlled lighting where you are going. Plan for alternate airports and how to get there. It would not be a bad idea even for VFR-only pilots to use a IFR enroute chart for minimum altitudes enroute and their airways to guarantee terrain separation. Use oxygen above 5000' msl.
Taxing around a new and unfamiliar ramp at night can be a challenge. Take it slowly. Wingtips are not lit, nor are other objects that will dent your wings. Know where you are headed on that strange ramp before you get there. Be courteous and don't shine your light into the face of another pilot. Keep your strobe lights off.
Night flying can be the ultimate experience for pilots and their passengers. It is safe, if you know what you are getting into. Train with a qualified instructor if you are not night current. Enjoy your night flight.