Everything You Need to Know About Flying at Night

Nighttime is one of the best times to fly. The winds die down, and the thermal turbulence dissipates, leaving a sky full of stars and a smooth ride. Night flying can be an absolute pleasure, but for many people, especially those that don't do it often, it can also be a source of anxiety. And for others, revisiting the basics of night flying should be something that's done every so often. Sometimes even frequent flyers forget some of the nuances surrounding night flying. Here are a few tips to help your next night flight go smoothly. 

Plan Ahead

Night Flying
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We can't stress the planning aspect of flying enough. It's important for any flight, but at night there are a few additional things to consider, like remembering to bring flashlights, and two are better than one, in case you drop the first one, and it rolls to the back of the aircraft (spoken from experience). Extra batteries are good, too, but when your batteries go dead mid-flight, it's easier just to pick up a new, operational flashlight than it is to fumble around with replacing batteries.

Plan Differently

Airline Pilot
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There are so many things to consider when you're planning a night flight. At night, for example, you should plan your VFR route differently. Or consider flying IFR if you're qualified. And plan for possible emergency situations, since an off-field landing will go much differently at night than it will during the day.

Remember the Regulations

Night Flight
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Many pilots get so busy flying that they forget about the regulations. There are certain rules to flying at night, like the 45-minute fuel reserve, and the requirement to be current to carry passengers. Here's a breakdown of some of the more important regulations pertaining to night flight. 

Verify Operating Hours and Availability

Airport control tower and a commuter plane preparing to land on the runway.
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Fuel availability, air traffic control closures, FBO hours, runway lights, approach procedures, and many other operational aspects of the flight environment change at night. Make sure you verify NOTAMS and procedures before your flight.

Know Your Lights

Runway Lights
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Aircraft lights, airport lights, runway lights, and approach lights are just a few of the lighting systems you should be familiar with before your night flight. It may seem obvious to some, but will you remember when you have to have your position lights on in the airplane? And do you remember what the airport beacon looks like for a seaplane base versus a military base versus a civilian land airport? What about your light gun signals in case of a communications failure?

Illusions Are Real

City Night Bokeh
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Nighttime illusions are common. The trouble with illusions is that you may not notice that you've fallen victim to one until it's too late. Be wary of nighttime illusions like the black hole effect, autokinesis, false horizons, and even the constant flickering of the strobe lights that can cause disorientation in pilots.

Trust Your Instruments

Getty Images/Mutlu Kurtbas

If you have an instrument rating, trusting your instruments will be easier for you than for others.​ If you don't have an instrument rating, you'll have to work harder to put your trust in your instruments. Basic instrument flight training is required for your private pilot certificate, but if you earned a private pilot certificate years ago, it's possible that you have had little or no instrument training since then. At night, it's important to rely more on your instruments than your body's signals.