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 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


  • 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
  • Airplane Equipment:

    • "A-TOMATO FLAMES" plus "FLAPS" Acronym:
    • 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
    • Airplane Flying Handbook. Figure 10-2, Position Lights
      Airplane Flying Handbook,
      Position Lights

Airport and Navigation Lighting Aids:

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 should always be included in night pilot training as an emergency procedure
  • If there is no tower and the airport is unlit:
    • 3 clicks = low intensity
    • 5 clicks = medium intensity
    • 7 clicks = 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

Equipment and 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

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 will mess with your visual cues, resulting in increased change for spatial disorientation and temptation to maintain eyes down, inside the cockpit
  • For more information read our section on logging flight time
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