Night Moves: Darkness Adds Complexity

When I got my Private certificate in 1973 there was no requirement for night training, but you could fly at night. It just went along for the ride, so to speak. Shortly thereafter the FAA instituted the first night training requirement, which I recall was 10 landings and a short cross country. The training was optional, but if an applicant didn’t get it, his or her certificate was restricted to day-flight only. The restriction could be lifted by taking the training. Later the FAA went to where we are now; three hours, including 10 landings and a 100-nautical-mile cross-country, and you don’t have a choice in the matter. I have two instructional stories to tell you about night-flying, which point out the need for proper night instruction.

Right after I got my certificate, I bought a Cessna 150 that had been on lease-back at the little flight school where I took my training. It was a 1967, six years old, and I paid $5,000 for it. I wanted to fly at night to get more utility out of the plane. But in spite of there not being any requirement, I was very reluctant to just venture out into the darkness without any training at all. My instructor didn’t want to do the night training I requested because he lived some distance from the airport and didn’t want to stay at the airport that late. Our 2,100-foot grass field was “lighted” by four low-voltage, earth-ground lights along each side of its 300-foot width. No green/red threshold/end lights. And oh yeah, it was cold in the month of February.

I finally badgered my instructor into it, and managed to get a 45-minute triangular trip that included three landings. He didn’t give me any ground school; no explanation of aircraft or airport lighting or anything like that. Just get in the plane and let’s go! I had done the navigation planning on my own, which the instructor didn’t look at. So we took off. During the short flight, the instructor didn’t say much, and I didn’t pay much attention to him because I was concentrating on not getting lost, and I was worried about the next landing. He mentioned something about disappearing threshold lights, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t have any problems with the short instructional flight, and it did give me some confidence, so I figured I was ready to go on my own.

The following Friday evening I collected up my friend Rick to go flying at night. We decided to head over to the big city of Reading, Pennsylvania where they had a control tower and real airport lighting. The weather was crystal-clear. I could see the airport and called from perhaps 20 miles out. I received immediate straight-in landing clearance; there wasn’t any other traffic. I started down from 3,000 feet in a slow descent. Rick and I were enjoying the evening immensely and commenting on the beautiful weather. As we descended and got closer to the airport, it started to look different. I asked Rick if he noticed any change. He didn’t.

Then I began to get it; the threshold lights were gone. The side lights and the far-end red lights were there, but no green ones. Hmmm…what was it my instructor had said when we did the night lesson? Oh, yeah, I remember, if the threshold lights disappear then that means there is something in between you and the airport, but you can’t tell how far away it is. If that ever happens you should climb right away because you might fly into the obstacle. OK, I wonder what could be in the way? (Dawdle, thinking.)

Oh, holy crap, climb! I stuffed in the throttle and pitched up! As I did that I saw motion off to my right, and flew beside some sort of tower. I just held on and hoped I wouldn’t hit anything. I didn’t. After a while I looked at the airport and was very pleased to see the green threshold lights again. I flew level until I was much closer, did a steep descent, and landed uneventfully. Once on the ground, we figured out what had happened. I had started my descent way too early and got down behind the unlighted ridge 8 to 10 miles south of the field. I remembered my instructor’s admonition just in time; I very nearly put the airplane in the trees. Later I learned that the tower I flew by was a concrete-and-steel practice fire tower. Pretty solid.

When you teach night flight, please don’t just get in the plane and take off. The airplane is a lousy and expensive classroom. Your student won’t get or remember what you tell him or her while trying to master night landings or navigating in the dark. Instead, meet at the airport an hour before dark. Do a ground school session before you do any flying. Cover subjects like when is night (currency vs. turning on lights), aircraft lights, airport lighting, different colors and sequences of rotating beacons, the disappearing threshold warning, flashlights, night vision, illusions, ground fog, cross-country navigation at night, and risk management.

The flight portion is a golden opportunity to do some training beyond the bare minimum requirements without taking any more time or costing any more money. While you’re doing the eight night takeoffs and landings (you’ll get the other two during the night cross-country), after the first two or three for familiarity, try some failure scenarios. Do a couple of landings without the landing light turned on. Try one with no panel lights. No panel lights or landing light. Electrical failure; no landing or panel light, and no (electric) flaps.

When you do the 100-nautical-mile cross-country, go to a Class C airport. Let your student experience dealing with Approach Control, see the advanced lighting systems at a big airport, obtain a departure clearance, and do the hand-off from Tower to Departure. Yes, you’ll probably have to help the students, but at least they’ll have the experience. I really hate it when I’m doing a checkride and I find out the instructor did the eight takeoffs and landings, all the same, and then went to some dinky non-towered field for the cross-country. Yes, the student met the letter of the aeronautical experience requirement, but I know the instructor is a lazy, uncaring time-builder.

Story Two: After I had my Cessna 150 for about a year and a half, my house needed a roof, and I had no money. I sold the little trainer for $4,800 and had the roof done. Soon after, I inherited some money and bought a one-year-old Skyhawk for $14,500. That was the fall of 1974. I had that plane for about a year, and in the winter of 1975 I was downwind at night to land at Mt. Pocono, PA, and I turned on the landing light. It flashed briefly and went out (the bulb was fried). I had never even considered landing at night without the landing light. I didn’t know if I could do it or not, and I was scared!

I didn’t have much choice so I went ahead and attempted the landing. It turned out to be easy, of course, but I could have avoided a lot of anxiety if my instructor had let me try even one no-light landing during that abbreviated night lesson.

Larry Bothe is an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, FAASTeam Representative and Gold Seal Instructor in the Indianapolis, IN FSDO area. He is also a Master Certified Flight Instructor and has over 7000 hours in more than 80 types of aircraft. Larry is part-owner of a 1961 7EC Champ and may be contacted at

Be first to comment