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Night, Single Engine -- The Night-VFR Checklist: Part I

'I love night flying and, in fact, will be making some night flights out of necessity -- however, I often read that flying a single engine airplane at night is a huge risk...''I love night flying and, in fact, will be making some night flights out of necessity -- however, I often read that flying a single engine airplane at night is a huge risk. At the same time, if I just fly on CAVU days during daylight, the utility of my airplane diminishes significantly.' So writes an iPilot reader. He goes on to ask if he's exposing himself to risk by flying a single-engine airplane at night. My answer: We can't avoid risk altogether and yes, flying at night does incur more risk. The trick is to avoid unnecessary risk. Below, is my personal system of checks and balances specifically designed for flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) in a single-engine airplane at night.

THE NIGHT-VFR CHECKLIST
Familiarity. You need to be intimately familiar with your airplane before increasing the risk by flying at night. It only makes good sense to decrease the effect any inherent risks before introducing more...

  • Don't make a night flight the first time you fly a specific airplane, or the first time you've flown it in a while. Don't night-fly until you feel very comfortable flying the airplane.
  • Use your checklists, even when you are comfortable in the airplane. Complacency can be worse than unfamiliarity.
  • Know how the airplane feels, know the power settings you'll use for various phases of flight, and know what performance to expect during what phase of flight so you can quickly detect when the airplane's not performing as expected.
  • Perform a 'blind cockpit check.' In the Air Force, we weren't allowed to solo before we could sit in the cockpit and immediately touch any indicator or control on command -- while blindfolded. Develop this level of comfort with the airplane before you fly it at night.
  • Do NOT make a night flight right after airplane maintenance or an annual inspection. Mechanics are people too, and sometimes leave controls, switches, and even more critical items out of 'normal' position.
Engine Failures -- Fuel. The issue of flying a single engine airplane at night hinges mainly on the reliability of your only powerplant. You can avoid the greatest likelihood of engine failure by practicing good fuel management. NTSB investigation shows that well over three-fourths of all engine failures result from either fuel starvation (running out of fuel in the tank feeding the engine and not switching to another tank with fuel in it before hitting the ground) or fuel exhaustion (truly 'running out of gas'). To avoid the most likely engine failures:
  • Reserves -- Take off with sufficient fuel to make your destination plus a very comfortable reserve.
  • Lean the mixture to obtain the expected fuel flow at your selected cruise-power setting.
  • Monitor the fuel burn in flight by as many means as possible (fuel burn X time; fuel gauges; trim feel as fuel burns from one tank to another; fuel totalizer if installed) and consider landing at a nearby airport if your fuel state becomes ambiguous because of conflicting indications.
  • Follow a strict, written schedule for fuel management (switching from one fuel tank to another in cruise).
  • Observe all fuel systems limitations that apply to the aircraft -- know how much fuel you can't use.
  • Visually check for fuel streaming back from loose or leaky fuel caps -- periodically shine your flashlight outside to check. Pilots of high-wing airplanes can look for fuel droplets or mist off the wing's trailing edge behind the fuel caps -- and can also check for leaks around fuel strainer drains.
  • Switch tanks near a lighted airport just in case a plugged fuel vent or other hazard prevents 'good' fuel from reaching your engine.
  • Plan shorter legs -- you might not have as many options (lighted airports, available fuel) at night, and you may need more reserve fuel.
  • Recheck your Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) regularly to account for unexpected headwinds, and recalculate fuel requirements as the ETA changes. Don't hesitate to land early if you're eating into your preplanned fuel reserve.
  • Practice your emergency checklists -- you need to be ready to flawlessly accomplish the engine troubleshooting, maximum glide and off-airport landing checklists should for any reason power be interrupted in flight.
Engine failures -- Other. The bad news is you can't do much about truly mechanical causes of engine failure once they occur ... day or night. The good news is that engines rarely break without at least some warning.
  • Monitor engine indications (oil temperature and pressure, fuel flow rates or pressure, cylinder head and exhaust gas temperatures, ammeter or voltage meter) in flight and record the indications over a series of trips. You'll likely find that all indications are quite steady and predictable from flight to flight. Record the 'normal' indications and frequently compare those to what you actually observe. You might even want to use a grease pencil to mark the 'normal' needle position for each instrument in your airplane. You'll not only be able to tell your oil pressure is 'in the green,' but, for instance, that it's at 55 psi, or whatever's normal for your engine.
      Important: 60 psi or 50 psi might be 'green' indications but not 'normal' for this airplane; figure out what's causing the discrepancy before flying at night, and terminate a flight at the nearest airport if you discover an 'abnormal' indication during a night cruise.
  • If you own the airplane, invest in a good, multi-probe engine monitor (Insight GEM, JPI, EI, whatever) as your single most important safety device for the single most vital airplane component -- the engine. Review the monitor's manual (Insight's and JPI's are both excellent) to learn to track individual cylinders' 'normal' readings and detect and troubleshoot 'abnormal' indications.
  • If you rent, consider the equipment in the rental aircraft before considering a night flight. If it's not comfortably instrumented -- especially with regard to engine instrumentation -- find an aircraft that is.
  • Fix little problems when you find them to avoid bigger problems later. Problems almost never fix themselves, most tend to get worse at the most inopportune times.
That's enough to absorb for one week, study it well. Next week we'll cover systems failures, weather considerations, route planning and more in second and final installment -- The Night VFR Checklist: Part II.

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About This Author:
Tom Turner is a widely published author and regular forum speaker at EAA's Oshkosh/Airventure and American Bonanza Society. Tom holds an M.S. in Aviation Safety with an emphasis on pilot training methods and human factors. He has worked as lead instructor at FlightSafety International, developed and conducted flight test profiles for modified aircraft and authored three books including: Cockpit Resource Management: The Private Pilot's Guide and Instrument Flying Handbook (both from McGraw-Hill). His flight experience currently spans 3000 hours with approximately 1800 logged as an instructor. Tom's certificate currently shows ATP MEL with Commercial/Instrument privileges in SEL airplanes.
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