Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Night Flying VFR

I am only a private pilot, but I have flown at night a little bit. Flying at night can be very pleasant, but it has it's challenges. On an airline flight one fourth of July, I saw a spectacular fireworks display. The lights are very pretty, and are sometimes helpful.

Looking at the image above, it is hard to tell, but that is an airport. The lights at an airport are mostly directional. The runway lights are brightest when the aircraft is lined up with the runway. Various other lights are in the airport vicinity, occasionally, and may help identify the orientation of the runways.

The FAA will depict the runway lighting on the airport charts, and in the airport facility directory (A/FD) the specifics of the airport lighting will be spelled out. Some of the lighting specified in the AF/D include:
  • ALS - Approach Lighting System
  • MALSR - Medium Intensity Approach Lighting System With Runway Alignment Indicator Lights
  • PAPI - Precision Approach Path Indicator 
  • PCL - Pilot Controlled Lighting
  • REIL - Runway End Indicator Lights
The otherside of flying at night, it is dark out there. When in the city, there are usually lots of lights, street lights, house lights, parking lot lights, etc. Out in the country it is dark, maybe a yard light is on near a farm, but not much more. When out flying, it is amazing how much rural landscape is out there. During the day, it doesn't really matter, the rural landscape may be grids, and help us navigate. At night, the rural landscape is mostly black. 

If someone has been flying VFR at night, the navigation is probably very similar to instrument navigation. Radio aids are usually used to locate specific places, or distance. The cockpit isn't conducive to much lighting, so the nav systems should have dimmed lighting as well, so the pilot doesn't hamper their night vision acuity. 

There are various schemes that can be used to identify landmarks at night. Looking for local landmarks can help (IE 2 miles south of the city). Using the pilot controlled lighting, is another trick, click 3 or 5 times on the CTAF of the desired airport, and see if the lights change. If the visibility is lower than about 5 miles, VFR conditions exist, but VFR navigation will not be suitable. 

Flying at night, it may be desirable to use oxygen. The eyes work hard all the time, but especially at night, they need all the help they can get. Some people describe using oxygen during night flights, as a way to turn the lights on.

Flying at night can be pleasant, but has its pitfalls. Fly extra careful at night.

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