Night flying

Long nights and short days? The perfect time to add a Night Rating. Dave Calderwood finds night flying is fun and can benefit a pilot’s daytime skills

How can you tell where Mount Kilimanjaro is? A reasonable question, I thought, considering we had just taken off from Nairobi International Airport at night, in a light twin, heading south and right at the mountain. “That’s the easy bit,” said the young Aussie pilot sitting next to me in the left seat. “Look ahead and it’s where there are no stars.”

It was as high-tech as that. With a clear sky, stars were abundant except for a massive sort-of-triangular black void where Africa’s highest mountain blocked them out. You couldn’t actually see the mountain but at least you knew where it was.

Our destination was a safari lodge in the Serengeti National Park and navigating our way there  was pretty simple too. A simple GPS unit sat on the coaming, pre-loaded with waypoints to follow a well-trodden route. We arrived at the lodge at dawn, buzzed the dirt strip at 100ft to make sure it was clear of animals, then set the twin down quickly.

I was mentally exhausted having monitored every instrument and every move of the pilot during the five-hour flight, staring bug-eyed out of the window to try and make sense of where we were. While the flight had been uneventful and smooth, not being able to see much had been terrifying for this simple, recently-qualified private pilot.

That was a few years ago and these days I know that flying at night is much the same as flying IFR, instrument flight rules, and the secret to getting it right is preparation. Prepare well, know what to expect, follow the rules, fly accurately and night flying can be a lot of fun.

The air is often smoother without the thermal bumps generated during the day. Wind often drops off at night, there are fewer aircraft out flying, and conversations with ATC are often less pressured. Navigation is using navaids or GPS rather than eyeball, but night-time views of the sky and ground below can be breathtakingly beautiful.

Night in the UK is defined as ‘from 30 minutes after sunset to 30 minutes before sunrise’. To fly at night in the UK, you need to have a Night Rating or an Instrument Rating (you do the Night rating before the IR). Many private pilots do a Night Rating on the way to getting what used to be called the IMC Rating (now known as the Instrument Rating (Restricted)) as the skills and preparation are similar.

You can add a Night Rating to an PPL or LAPL (Light Aircraft Pilot’s Licence) which allows you to fly visual flight rules conditions at night. If you have an LAPL, then first you’ll need to complete the basic instrument training that wasn’t included in the syllabus. If you have an LAPL medical certificate, it will have to be endorsed with your eyesight rated as ‘colour safe’. Mustn’t get greens mixed up with reds!

Many flight schools offer the training and some airfields arrange special evenings just for night flights. As well as relevant theoretical knowledge, the instruction must include:

  • 5 hours of flight time at night with at least 3 hours of dual flying instruction 
  • 1 hour of cross-country navigation with at least one dual cross-country flight of at least 50km 
  • 5 solo take-offs and 5 solo full-stop landings.

The Night Rating is for life but to maintain currency to be allowed to carry passengers, the normal passenger rule of ‘3 take-off and landings in past 90 days’ applies with at least one of each at night, unless you have a valid instrument rating.

For private pilots, the idea of regular night flying is probably unlikely. However, there are good reasons for going for a Night Rating.

John Eburne, a flight instructor, said,  “The main value of a Night Rating is it gives a rounder experience and makes for a more competent pilot. The understanding of landing an aeroplane at night can lead to better, more controlled and stable, daytime approaches and landings. 

“The idea of being ‘caught out’ by night is a little unlikely and perhaps a poorly thought-out reason for gaining a Night Rating. However, as a discipline in its own right, night flying is a very rewarding experience and opens up extending your weekends away if your home airfield has runway lights available.”

Key points

So let’s take a look at the best advice for night flying, summarised here into 10 key points.

1 “Bring a torch along for your walk around and for use within the cockpit,” said John Eburne. “Mark your chart to show the shape of towns and cities and their proximity to one another. Check the weather Notam and serviceability of aeroplane’s external and cockpit lights.” Some pilots like to wear a light on a headband, available from camping shops, leaving their hands free.

2 Plan your route to make best use of available resources, ie following a well-lit road such as a motorway and using easily identified landmarks. Lighted towers and buildings stand out well at night while traditional daytime navigation landmarks such as rivers, lakes and railways disappear. Carry plenty of fuel. 

3 Check weather forecasts thoroughly especially for possible icing. Clouds are hard to see at night and the build-up of ice on wings even harder. It may be difficult to shed ice even when you’re in the clear because of the low temperatures. If you find yourself in cloud, hold heading and altitude until you come out the other side.

4 If you have a traffic collision awareness system (TCAS), use it. If not, try and get a traffic information service. There may not be many other aircraft out flying but they are harder to see.

5 If lights ahead start to flicker on and off, suspect an obstruction. Check terrain height and obstacles, and the Minimum Safe Altitude. Think ‘Kilimanjaro’ as above! If in doubt, climb.

6 Remember your human factors course: you can see better in low light levels through the corners of your eyes – the rods – rather than through the centre – the cones.

7 Remember also that you may be tired after a day’s work. All the more reason to keep things simple. Flying with another pilot helps.

8 The advice that you should ‘aim for the dark bits’ in case of engine failure is generally discredited. Far better to aim for somewhere with lights in the hope of spotting a suitable landing place – and if the worst happens, there’s more likely to be help close by.

9 Plan your arrival before departure, stick to the plan and to procedures. Fly an accurate circuit, and turn on to base when the runway threshold is at 45° over your shoulder, exactly as you’ve done many times before. Turn final at 600ft above field level and use the PAPI lights and view of the runway ahead to descend at the right rate.

10 “Landing is usually the hardest part of the learning to fly challenge, be it night or day,” said John Eburne. “It’s all about where your eyes are looking to make a smooth landing. Instinctively, night students initially tend to look within the landing light beam and are a little reticent about landing at night. However, with confidence and practice they learn to look to the far end of the runway to judge height better. This is the skill that they take back to their daytime flying.”

Finally, flying is fun! Keep the flights simple at first. If there’s dodgy weather around, don’t fly. Fly with someone with more experience. Refine your skills and work out the best package of torches and nav devices and charts to suit you. And when the aircraft’s tyres chirp on touchdown after a night cross-country, give yourself a big ‘well-done mate’ pat on the back.

CAA Night Rating info


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