Many years ago, I was flying a single-engine plane at night across some very remote and hostile mountainous terrain when the engine started to run rough. It was so subtle at first that I thought it was “automatic rough” caused by an over-active imagination when being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, this was real and I knew that if the engine went south so would I. That sinking, quivering feeling that you get in the pit of your stomach knowing that your very existence is on the line is something you never forget. Needless to say the outcome was favorable, but I vowed never to fly at night again across rough terrain on one engine or otherwise put myself in a position where options were not an option.
The risks associated with night flight aren’t just limited to the above scenario. Other hazards exist which are much less apparent, but just as deadly. Last year I investigated three fatal accidents that had one common thread: They all occurred at night. The circumstances were distinctive, but night was a key element and the outcomes might have been different if the flights had taken place during daylight hours.
The first accident took place on a crystal clear, moonless night at a remote desert airport. Although visibility was otherwise excellent, witnesses described conditions as pitch black with no visible horizon. The 2000-hour, instrument-rated pilot took off from a lighted runway. Within half-a-mile of the runway departure end, the aircraft went in to a 90 degree left bank. The left wing tip struck the ground causing the aircraft to cartwheel resulting in the destruction of the aircraft and two fatalities.
This is a classic example of a “black hole” accident where the pilot is lulled into a sense of complacency because the weather is excellent, but visual references are limited or non-existent. The mind-set is VFR (visual flight rules) when, in the blink of an eye, instrument skills are required as soon as the plane lifts off and the runway lights disappear from view. About 15 years ago there was a nearly identical accident after a night departure from the Harris Ranch airport, also with an instrument-rated pilot aboard. If you have never experienced a “black hole” departure, the Mariposa Airport, to the east of Modesto, is a good place to learn (with a qualified, night-current instructor aboard). Be prepared for an instant transition to flight-by-instrument reference upon departing at night.
These “black hole” type of accidents can occur not only during takeoff, but also while maneuvering to land. A distant point of light in an otherwise dark area can induce rapid spatial disorientation if, for example, a star in the sky is incorrectly interpreted to be a light on the ground. If the pilot of an aircraft in a bank attempts to roll out believing that the light on the ground is a star or vice-versa the aircraft will be headed towards an inverted position. Not a good thing. I know of two aircraft that were lost in this manner both of which had airline transport pilots onboard.
The next accident involves a relatively inexperienced non-instrument rated pilot departing from a coastal airport at night. Again, conditions were very dark with the only local weather available from the airport’s ASOS (Airport Surface Observation System) which was correctly reporting clear skies over the airport. What the pilot didn’t know and couldn’t see was that a coastal fog layer was moving onshore just approaching the airport perimeter. After takeoff the pilot realized that he was encountering the clouds at about 500 feet above ground level and attempted to return to the airport. With darkness being a continuing factor, he lost altitude awareness and hit the ground resulting in one fatality and a serious injury. Had this been daylight, the weather hazard and his height above the ground would have been apparent. Weather can be very difficult to see at night and reports in many areas are sporadic and can cause a pilot to unexpectedly require the sudden need for instrument skills.
While the previous accident discusses a low-time pilot encountering instrument meteorological conditions during a night departure, this next accident provides an interesting contrast to the last one in that it involves a highly experienced pilot encountering instrument conditions during a night landing. The flight was VFR to an uncontrolled field with no instrument approach. Upon arrival a shallow ground fog was over the airport, but the pilot could see the runway lights from overhead. During the approach the pilot lost sight of the runway upon entering the ground fog and crashed into a ditch just a few hundred yards from the runway threshold resulting in one fatality and one serious injury. While one could argue that the outcome might have been the same during daylight, the sight of the runway lights illuminating the airport through the fog created an illusion that conditions were not that bad and likely induced the pilot to attempt the approach.
The above are all cautionary tales to keep in mind. These pilots were not acting recklessly or imprudently, but encountered conditions in which they were quickly caught off guard. Night flying can be an enjoyable aspect of the aviating experience, but it also brings with it certain risks and hazards not associated with flight during daylight hours. While you need not be instrument rated to legally fly VFR at night (although in Canada you need an instrument ticket to fly at night) you should be instrument proficient and prepared to fly by reference to the instruments when outside visual references are unexpectedly impaired.
Remember that a successful night flight is one where you see the light of day.
Editor’s Note: This article was written by Ken Steiner prior to his retirement from the United States Aircraft Insurance Group as a Vice-President and Claims Manager. During his career, Ken investigated thousands of aircraft accidents involving small planes, crop dusters, helicopters, corporate aircraft, and airliners. He has been on-site at over 100 fatal aircraft accident investigations. He is currently an Aviation Investigative Consultant and is also a Pilot and Tactical Flight Officer for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Air Support Unit. He owns a Cessna 182 based at San Carlos and holds ATP and CFI certificates with over 5000 flying hours.