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The Night-VFR Checklist: Part II

When the only thing keeping you above an unwelcome encounter with unseen terrain below is a single powerplant, you'd better know what you're doing.When the only thing keeping you above an unwelcome encounter with unseen terrain below is a single powerplant, you'd better know what you're doing. As our important follow-up to Part I, here are some additional rules to live by for single-engine night flight.

Systems Failure. Other systems failures, especially those involving the electrical system, can affect your flight instruments, engine gauges, landing gear and flaps.

  • Monitor the ammeter or other electrical indicators for 'normal' operation, and terminate night flight any time you see an 'abnormal' indication.
      Watch for: Low voltage, erratic instrument readings, or the repeated requirement to 'reset' an alternator are all 'no go' items.
  • Crosscheck your vacuum and other systems gauges also, and cancel night flight if you see an unusual indication.
  • Know what powers which indicators, including the operation and monitoring of backup systems if available.
  • Practice, emergency procedures and be ready to accomplish, the alternator failure, partial panel, and manual landing gear and flaps extension procedures on demand... and under stress.
Weather. You won't be able to see most adverse weather at night before you fly into it.
  • Never fly at night without a thorough Flight Service (or 'official' equivalent) weather briefing. Period.
  • Beware of visibility warnings like close or converging temperature/dew point spreads, low clouds and precipitation -- snow showers also lower visibility to almost nil.
  • Practice 'categorical outlook flying' -- look at the weather 'category' (i.e., VFR, marginal VFR, IFR or Low IFR) and plan your flight accordingly.
      For daytime flying, if the weather is VFR, plan for a VFR trip. If the weather is MVFR plan as if you're planning an IFR trip (routes, minimum altitudes for each segment of your trip, increased fuel reserves, etc.) and fly your VFR plan. FOR FLYING AT NIGHT, 'kick each category up a notch.'
      For nighttime flying, plan a VFR trip as if you were planning for IFR, including routes, minimum altitudes for each flight segment, alternate airports and added fuel reserves.
WARNING: Don't even contemplate flying visually in MVFR at night. MVFR can and often does quickly deteriorate to IMC at night. You won't be able to detect the lowered conditions visually until you've encountered them.

Routes. 'Direct' might not always be the best choice at night.

  • Plan shorter trip legs at night, terminating at larger airports where you'll be more likely to find more available resources should you need them -- as well as get fuel for the next hop.
  • Know if and when services are available at the airports you plan to fly into. FBOs close, and that 'quick hop' to the next 'nearby' airport might land you a permanent spot in the fuel exhaustion statistics.
  • Plan your routes over low, flat terrain, and dogleg as necessary around large bodies of water or desolate stretches to keep airports within gliding distance as much as possible.
  • Think of each airport you pass as a new go/no-go decision point -- you can always land if fuel, engine indications or weather dictate, and the worst that'll happen is that you'll have to wait until morning for services at this new destination.
Communication. What your eyes can't see, your ears may hear.
  • File a flight plan for night VFR cross-countries.
  • Participate in Flight Following. Help -- or at least someone who knows where to look for you if things go wrong -- is available at the touch of a mic button.
  • Get weather updates en route from AWOS, ASOS, HIWAS outlets and Flight Service Stations.
  • File a Pilot Report to help the next pilot's decision-making.
Flight Kit. Much has been written about night-flying equipment, but never do without the basics:
  • Keep spare flashlights, bulbs and batteries in your flight bag.
  • Put your gear where you can reach it while you're strapped in the pilot's seat... it does you no good if it's in the baggage compartment.
  • Arrange your charts and other gear before starting engines for a night flight. The night cockpit may quickly become a place of very serious business, arrange it accordingly.
Preflight Inspection. Develop your own 'night preflight checklist.' Include checks of:
  • Internal and external lights.
  • Operation of flashlights.
  • Placement of charts and other items before engine start.
  • Additional last-minute checks of fuel state, oil state, and engine/systems operation.
It sounds like a lot of work, but you have two options. Fly safe, or take unnecessary risks. In a nutshell: equip yourself, equip the airplane, know your systems, watch your fuel, respect the weather, plan your trip and fly your plan. Do so and you've removed most of the added risk of flying VFR at night -- then, enjoy yourself!

BOTTOM LINE: All flying -- all life -- involves risk, and we need to accept some risk ... but more so, we need to avoid unnecessary risk-taking. Carefully considered and conducted, visual night flight in single engine airplanes can be an acceptable, and an enjoyable, pursuit.

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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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