Night Operations


  • Night, as defined by FAR 1.1, means the time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight, as published in the Air Almanac, converted to local time
  • Navigation lights are required sunset to sunrise
  • Navigation lights must be on full bright
  • Taxi/landing lights should be on any time airborne (see below) and when required on ground but not to the extent that other pilots will be blinded
  • Anti-collision/Strobe lights are required from engine start to shut down but again, not to blind as per FAR 91.209
  • Allow extra time for preflight and use a white lens flashlight to see fluids
  • Taxi on the middle of the taxiway
  • Night operations require half the speed, twice the caution
  • Perform everything with half the speed and twice the caution
  • Internal lights/displays must be as dim as possible while still being readable

Night Defined:

  • Night is defined differently according to the operation and conditions of flight
  • Night is generally understood as the time between sunset and sunrise
    • FAR 91.209, in describing use of aircraft lights, uses this defintion with the caveat that in Alaska, sunset/night is during the period a prominent unlighted object cannot be seen from a distance of 3 statute miles or the Sun is more than 6° below the horizon
    • FAR 91.157, special VFR weather minimums, uses this definition with the caveat that in Alaska, the Sun must be 6° or more below the horizon
  • FAR 1.1 defines night as "the time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight, as published in the "Air Almanac, converted to local time"
  • The Aeronautical Information Manual defines civil twilight as "Civil twilight is defined to begin in the morning, and to end in the evening when the center of the Sun is geometrically 6 degrees below the horizon"
    • FARs regarding logging certificate requirements use this definition
    • Pilots looking to log night time for own purposes (FARs do not require logs outside of certificate or passenger currency requirements), use this definition
    • FAR 107.29, operation at night, defines civil twilight as the 30 minutes after official sunset and 30 minutes before official sunrise, with the caveat in Alaska as civil twilight is as defined in the Air Almanac
  • Regarding recency of experience, "no person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise, unless within the preceding 90 days that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise"
    • FAR 61.57, in describing currency for carrying passengers at night, uses this definitions
  • The FAA provides a means to check sunset/sunrise times


  • If you have to look around the cockpit, try to do so in non-maneuvering flight with minimal head movements
  • If you become disoriented, reduce workload as much as possible and concentrate on flying the aircraft straight and level with reference to the HUD
  • You may need to execute unusual attitude recoveries
  • Consider engaging the autopilot
  • Stick to the principles, AVIATE, NAVIGATE, COMMUNICATE

Equipment Requirements:

  • Pilot Equipment:

    • Consider personal equipment that should be readily available during the flight
    • Flashlights should be kept handy
      • Flashlights should have filters for white or red/green/blue light [Amazon]
      • The white light is used while performing the preflight visual inspection of the airplane, and the red light is used when performing cockpit operations
      • Carry extra batteries
      • Since the red light is non-glaring, it will not impair night vision
      • If a red light is used for reading an aeronautical chart/checklist, the red features will not show up very well
    • Flashlights, such as the Mike Light 3 [Amazon], can be attached to your mic boom to ensure continuous accessibility
    • The lights of cities and towns can be seen at surprising distances at night, and if this adjacent chart is not available to identify those landmarks, confusion could result

Aircraft Equipment Requirements:

  • Inoperative Equipment:

    • If any other item is inoperative, 14 CFR section 91.405 states that it shall be placarded as required by Sec. 43.11
    • Following scheduled inspections:
      • Aircraft shall have discrepancies repaired unless it is permitted to be in operative by 91.213
      • Maintenance personnel shall make appropriate entries in the aircraft maintenance records indicating the aircraft has been approved for return to service
    • Equipment impacting safety of flight must be repaired, but items that are not required may remain inoperative indefinitely provided they are appropriately placarded
  • Passenger Requirements:

    • Passengers may not be carried if one hour after sunset until one hour before sunrise without night currency requirements having been satisfied, per FAR 61.57

    Special VFR Requirements:

    Aircraft Lighting:

    • Airplane position lights are arranged similar to those of boats and ships
    • A red light is positioned on the left wingtip, a green light on the right wingtip, and a white light on the tail
    • This arrangement provides a means by which pilots can determine the general direction of movement of other airplanes in flight
      • If both a red and green light of another aircraft were observed, the airplane would be flying toward the pilot, and could be on a collision course
    • Landing lights are not only useful for taxi, takeoffs, and landings, but also provide a means by which airplanes can be seen at night by other pilots, and by birds to avoid strikes
    • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has initiated a voluntary pilot safety program called "Operation Lights ON"
    • The "lights on" idea is to enhance the "see and be seen" concept of averting collisions both in the air and on the ground, and to reduce the potential for bird strikes
    • Pilots are encouraged to turn on their landing lights when operating within 10 miles of an airport
    • This is for both day and night, or in conditions of reduced visibility
    • Although turning on aircraft lights supports the see and be seen concept, pilots should not become complacent about keeping a sharp lookout for other aircraft
    • Most aircraft lights blend in with the stars or the lights of the cities at night and go unnoticed unless a conscious effort is made to distinguish them from other lights
    • Aircraft lighting is covered separately
    • Light arrangements help determine movement of flight of other airplanes
    • Pilots are encouraged to turn on their landing lights when operating within 10 miles of an airport (day or night)
    • At the conclusion of night operations, reset all the switches for day, as such, check after the aircraft has flown at night to make sure the previous pilot did not forget

    Airport and Navigation Lighting Aids:

    • A variety of Airport lighting standards exist for the terminal as well as enroute environment
    • Control of Lighting Systems:

      • Control of lighting systems in the airport environment can be adjusted through ground and air based mechanisms
      • Ground Control of Lighting Systems:

      • Pilot Controlled Lighting:

        • Radio control of lighting is available at selected airports to provide airborne control of lights by keying the aircraft's microphone
        • Control of lighting systems is often available at locations without specified hours for lighting and where there is no control tower or FSS or when the tower or FSS is closed (locations with a part-time tower or FSS) or specified hours
        • Complete details, can be found under the airport lighting page
    • Airport Lighting:

      • Lighting around airports are meant to easily identify airport locations and layouts for the safe transition from the enroute to terminal environment
      • Obstruction Lights:

      • Airport/Heliport Beacons:

        • Airport and heliport beacons help identify airports/heliports during low-light conditions
        • They have a vertical light distribution to make them most effective from one to ten degrees above the horizon; however, they can be seen well above and below this peak spread
        • The beacon may be an omnidirectional capacitor-discharge device, or it may rotate at a constant speed which produces the visual effect of flashes at regular intervals
          • Flashes may be one or two colors alternately
      • Terminal Lighting:

      • Runway Status Light System:

        • Although uncommon at general aviation airfields, pilots may be required to observe a Runway Status Light System, designed to increase a pilot's situational awareness of an airfield's status
    • See Airport Markings and Signs
    • See Airport Lighting
    • See Airways and Route Course Changes

    Night Weather Considerations:

    • At night, weather phenomena as simple as clouds can be difficult to identify, making an instrument rating a valuable safety mitigation
    • To help find an airport at night, consider dialing the OBS of the HSI or other indicator to the runway heading and if possible, using the airport as a GPS point

    Approaches and Landings:

    • Airplane Flying Handbook. Figure 10-6, Round-out when tire marks are visible
      Airplane Flying Handbook, Round-out when tire marks are visible
    • Rotating beacons help locate the airport
    • The runway lights must be identified prior to an approach
    • The tendency at night is to fly a wider pattern
    • Setting a heading bug to the runway direction will help gain and maintain situational awareness
    • Distance can be deceptive
      • Consequently you must be vigilant and paying attention to your instruments
      • Fly at or above a glide slope if you have one
    • At night, the judgment of height, speed, and sink rate is impaired by the scarcity of observable objects in the landing area
      • The inexperienced pilot may have a tendency to flare too high until attaining familiarity with the proper height for the correct round-out
      • To aid in determining the proper round-out point, continue a constant approach descent until the landing lights reflect on the runway and tire marks on the runway can be seen clearly
    • Blackout landings (landings without runway lights) should always be included in night pilot training as an emergency procedure
      • Runway lights are not a requirement for landing at night; pilots may utilize lighted, and non-lighted runways all the same
    • If there is no tower and the airport is unlit:
      • 3 clicks = low intensity
      • 5 clicks = medium intensity
      • 7 clicks = high intensity
        • If unable to located the airport, consider high intensity
    • Airplane Flying Handbook. Figure 10-6, Round-out when tire marks are visible
      Airplane Flying Handbook, Round-out when tire marks are visible

    Night Operation Techniques:

    • Night operations take more time, from preflight, to the conduct of the flight, and post-flight requirements
    • Carry extra lights and batteries just in case lighting is insufficient during flight
    • Avoid the use of electronics that produce excessive flight, both from the perspective of night vision and general distraction
    • Increasing altitude in the night gives additional time and safety margin for troubleshooting
    • Be cognizant of aeromedical considerations like hypoxia, the higher you fly
    • Increase instrument cross-reference with the view outside of the cockpit
      • Stars can become street lights, slow movements can produce disorientation quickly
    • Avoiding clouds at night starts with a good weather brief, but requires persistent observation
      • Fading of environmental lighting or turning on a landing/taxi light to look for "bluming" may help avoid flight into clouds

    Night Emergencies:

    • If the engine fails at night, several important procedures and considerations to keep in mind are:
      • Maintain positive control of the airplane and establish the best glide configuration and airspeed
      • Turn the airplane toward an airport or away from congested areas
      • Check to determine the cause of the engine malfunction, such as the position of fuel selectors, magneto switch, or primer
      • If possible, the cause of the malfunction should be corrected immediately and the engine restarted
      • Announce the emergency situation to Air Traffic Control (ATC) or UNICOM
      • If already in radio contact with a facility; do not change frequencies, unless instructed to change
      • If the condition of the nearby terrain is known, turn toward an unlighted portion of the area
        • Plan an emergency approach to an unlighted portion
      • Consider an emergency landing area close to public access if possible
        • This may facilitate rescue or help, if needed
      • Maintain orientation with the wind to avoid a downwind landing
      • Complete the before landing checklist, and check the landing lights for operation at altitude and turn ON in sufficient time to illuminate the terrain or obstacles along the flight path
      • The landing should be completed in the normal landing attitude at the slowest possible airspeed
      • If the landing lights are unusable and outside visual references are not available, the airplane should be held in level-landing attitude until the ground is contacted
      • After landing, turn off all switches and evacuate the airplane as quickly as possible

    Night Hazards:

    • Night Illusions:

      • Pilots should already be aware that the eye can induce illusions
      • On a clear night, distant stationary lights can be mistaken for stars or other aircraft
      • Dark nights tend to eliminate reference to a visual horizon
      • Illusion awareness coupled with a disciplined instrument scan practiced more frequent than during the day help mitigate illusions in flight

    Unmanned Aircraft Systems Night Operations:

    • No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft system during night
    • No person may operate a small unmanned aircraft system during periods of civil twilight unless the small unmanned aircraft has lighted anti-collision lighting visible for at least 3 statute miles. The remote pilot in command may reduce the intensity of the anti-collision lighting if he or she determines that, because of operating conditions, it would be in the interest of safety to do so
    • For purposes of the above, civil twilight refers to the following:
      • Except for Alaska, a period of time that begins 30 minutes before official sunrise and ends at official sunrise;
      • Except for Alaska, a period of time that begins at official sunset and ends 30 minutes after official sunset; and
      • In Alaska, the period of civil twilight as defined in the Air Almanac

    Private Pilot - Night Preparation Airman Certification Standards:

    • To determine that the applicant exhibits satisfactory knowledge, risk management, and skills associated with Night Preparation
    • References: FAA-H-8083-2, FAA-H-8083-3, FAA-H-8083-25; AIM; POH/AFM

    Night Preparation Knowledge:

    The applicant must demonstrate an understanding of:

    Night Preparation Risk Management:

    The applicant demonstrates the ability to identify, assess, and mitigate risks, encompassing:
    • PA.XI.A.R1:

      Collision hazards, to include aircraft, terrain, obstacles, and wires
    • PA.XI.A.R2:

      Distractions, loss of situational awareness, or improper task management
    • PA.XI.A.R3:

      Hazards specific to night flying

    Night Preparation Skills:

    The applicant demonstrates the ability to:
    • NA:

      Not generally evaluated in flight. If the practical test is conducted at night, all ACS Tasks are evaluated in that environment, thus there is no need for explicit Task elements to exist here

    Night Operations Case Studies:


    • Night will mess with your visual cues, resulting in increased change for spatial disorientation and temptation to maintain eyes down, inside the cockpit
    • Instructors may sign off students to fly at night if in accordance with FAR 61.87(o)
    • For more information read our section on logging flight time
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