When it comes to learning night flying and particularly the landings or even getting back into night flying after not doing any flying in the dark for quite some time, I recommend a gradual approach. Rather than simply going up in the dark of the evening, I try to ease my students into the new flying environment which offers far fewer visual cues.
With my primary (private pilot) students I always made the same first night flight. We would take off from Mansfield and fly to Plymouth during the dusk hours, while there is still some light in the sky. While it gets dark, and becomes “officially night time” we enjoy dinner at Plane Jane’s, usually I recommend sharing a pizza, which of course are very tasty at Jane’s! This gives us some time to discuss the details of night flying, including the primary differences from their other flying experience during the day.
After dinner we start up our flight lesson aircraft and I get to determine how skilled my student is with preflight preparation. A well-prepared student will have noticed that the pilot controlled lighting at Plymouth is on a frequency other than the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF), meaning the student must tune 122.9 to active the runway lights, then switch back to 123.0 for traffic announcements. If the student was well prepared they get a “well done.” If the was not adequately prepared, they learn a valuable lesson, not soon to be forgotten.
Once a run up is completed I typically have my student make three to four full stop (including taxiing back for departure) takeoffs and landings at Plymouth. Then we fly down to the New Bedford Regional Airport (KEWB), where we make an addition two to three takeoffs and landings, again full stop. During the meal at Jane’s one of the concepts I discuss with my students is that Plymouth’s runway 6-24 is roughly 4400’ by 75’ and Runway 15-33 is 3500’ by 75’. However, New Bedford’s Runway 5-23 is 5400’ long and Runway 14/32 is 5000’, both are 150’ wide. This means the sight pictures at the two airports will be different, plus the student will already have vastly fewer visual clues, as it will be dark.
Once the student makes a few landings on the larger runways at New Bedford we journey back to Mansfield, where the runway is 3500’ by 75’. Mansfield also sits in an area where it can be difficult to locate depending on the direction from which one is approaching the airport. After a couple of takeoffs and landings at Mansfield, I have my students make a landing without the landing light, this is challenging, but it is something they should have the opportunity to attempt and conquer in training, rather than having to encounter it for the first time with a passenger…
This lesson, taking about an hour and half allows the student to become comfortable with the reduced number of visual references at their disposal during night time operations, while also working towards meeting a variety of the initial training night flying requirements. The flights between airports also allows for time to perform various maneuvers, this allows the student to become comfortable with controlling the aircraft without a defined horizon in the windshield.
Haven’t been up at night in a while?
No need to worry, there is a trick for this too! First, take a flight instructor with you, they will allow you to regain your night currency, have fun flying and keep you safe all the while! One of the techniques I employed early in my flying for comfortably getting back my night currency was to ease into the darkness.
On the appointed evening, take advantage of the waning daylight as night approaches to preflight the aircraft. The more light available the more likely you are to catch an aircraft issue. The darkness of night can cause even the most experienced pilot to miss something critical, which may have been blatantly obvious in the full light of day.
While the evening is setting in, but with still some light in the sky, start making your takeoffs and landings. The limited light allows for you to have more visual cues that you would in total darkness. As the darkness sets in you will start to lose some of the visual cues until finally it is definitely nighttime and you have only the runway lights to guide your pilots actions. By this time you will be comfortable. Rather than starting with no visual cues in the darkness, you will see what happens as those cues start to fade and you’ll soon see how easy night landings in fact are…
-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9