The Six Worst Mistakes Pilots Make When Flying at Night
John F. Kennedy Jr., the son of one of the most famous presidents, crashed his plane at night. The FAA noted that there tend to be more crashes during the day, as around 80% of accidents happen while the sun is shining. It is of note, however, that there tend to be more planes in the air during the day.
That being said, when it is dark out, a higher percentage of crashes are fatal. 69.1% of night crashes involve someone passing on, while only 58.6% of daytime crashes are lethal.
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Falling Prey to the Black Hole Effect
When you are preparing to land, you may be headed to an airport that has very few ground features and lights. When this happens, you might believe that you are higher than you actually are. The airport will look like an island of bright lights because there is nothing but darkness all around it.
When this happens, pilots are actually flying a little bit lower. The darkness ‘sucks you in’ which gives the name to this effect. If you are not careful, you will crash short of the runway. Use the PAPI or VASI lights. If the runway has it, use the ILS for vertical guidance.
The worst time to doze off is when you are a couple thousand feet in the air. Our body responds to the darkness by preparing for sleep. You are going to have to fight this. Grab a coffee before you get airborne. Food, music, or another person can keep you awake and sharp.
Not Scanning the Horizon
Our vision is a funny thing. If you stare at something long enough, it can appear to start moving. You need to be constantly vigilant, and not look at any one thing for too long. Otherwise, you run the risk of disorienting yourself.
Using the False Horizon
Street lights or clouds can make a false horizon appear. When this happens, you are going to have to rely on your instruments. Remember how we mentioned JFK Jr. up at the top? He did not have an instrument rating and thought he could fly despite the haze concealing his horizon. This is a mistake, and you should not make the same one he did.
Using Bright Lights in the Cabin
It takes the cones of your eyes around 10 minutes to adjust to the darkness. The rods of your eyes take around ten minutes longer to make sense of the world. Every time you use a light in the cabin, this twenty minutes resets. When you need to be aware and constantly scanning the horizon, such as when you are flying at night, this is bad news.
If you need to use a map, it may be a good idea to acquire a red colored flashlight. Red light preserves your night vision, but you should keep in mind that you will have a hard time seeing anything that is marked in red on your map.
Proceeding When You aren’t Comfortable
In many parts of the country, you can find yourself flying with low visibility due to the lack of roads, cities, or other infrastructure below you. On a black, moonless night, there may not be a discernible horizon. This is basically instrument flying. If you are not comfortable with that, stay on the ground.
If you are a rookie pilot, your time will come. One of our favorite things about the night is that it comes with some regularity, and you can enjoy flying when the stars are out when you have some more experience under your belt.