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In the Dark of the Night

Article appeared in Flying Magazine June, 2015 by Martha King – Martha_04

“Martha, it is unbelievably dark. The ocean is black. The sky is black. The panel lights aren’t working. I can’t tell what direction we are flying. I can’t even tell up from down. I won’t be able to keep control for very long. We are in real trouble—do something!”

We had started our over-water return leg from the Big Island of Hawaii much later than we had intended and had not planned on doing it in the dark. We were shocked at how dark it was over the water. The Yankee we had rented at Honolulu International Airport was IFR-legal, and we were fully prepared to file and fly on instruments if we needed to. But as we were finding out, it’s a lot easier to fly on instruments when you can actually see the instruments!

I looked around frantically and found a light at the very back of the Yankee’s baggage compartment, and switched it on. When it worked, I heaved a sigh of relief.

“How’s that?” I asked John. “Not good enough,” he said, “I still can’t see the instruments.” So I grabbed one of our IFR charts, squirmed into the baggage area, and held the chart up to reflect light forward to the instrument panel. “How about now?” I asked. “That might work,” he responded.

With my holding the chart, and John using the instruments to keep the airplane under control, we were able to complete our over-ocean leg from Kona to Maui.

To our credit, after landing at the Kahului Airport on Maui we parked the Yankee and took an airliner back to Honolulu to fulfill our commitment to attend a party my mother was giving that evening. The obligation had been pressuring us all day. The next day we returned in the daylight to retrieve the Yankee.

Our Hawaii nighttime over-the-ocean experience was clearly scary for us. It is pretty obvious in retrospect that we weren’t prepared to manage the risks of night flight over the ocean. You have to wonder why. The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that when John and I learned to fly, we in the aviation community did not do a good job of teaching pilots to manage the risk in many areas, but especially the risks of flying in the dark.

When we got our Private Pilot certificates back in 1969, there was no requirement for nighttime instruction—no night cross-country, not even any night takeoffs and landings. And most instructors were pretty casual about the night part of flying.

“Just start doing touch-and-goes at dusk, and keep doing them until it’s dark,” said our flight instructor. “You’ll be fine.” I looked at John questioningly, and he just shrugged. It was a couple of weeks after we had gotten our Private Pilot certificates, and we knew we wanted to start doing some night flying.

So, taking a cue from our instructor, we were casual about it too. We went out to the airport that night just before dusk, and started doing touch-and-goes. And the instructor was right. As full dark fell, we adapted to the dark and learned to land at night just fine.

While we adapted quickly to night takeoffs and landings, there was a lot we still didn’t know—and to make matters worse, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We had no way of knowing that while some of the risks of flying at night are intuitive, many are not. Plus, we hadn’t been given the many tips, insights and habits that help pilots to understand and manage those risks.

As with a lot of risk management in aviation, we learned about risk management for night flying by going out and doing it. And our first big case of “doing it” was on a cross-country trip from Indiana to San Diego in our Cherokee 140 a couple of months after getting our Private certificates. On the leg from El Paso to Tucson, a late start and strong headwinds resulted in our arriving in the Tucson area after dark.

In the clear skies of the moonless Arizona desert night, the stars were magnificent. We could see the Milky Way, and the sky was full of brilliant pinpoints of light everywhere we looked. Coming from the Midwest, where the sky was so often overcast, this astounded and amazed us. And the night air was silky smooth—much smoother than we had ever experienced.

But as we approached Tucson, we began to realize that the black area below and ahead of us was the mountain ridges which we needed to cross on our way to the airport. It was then that we began to understand the significance of what we hadn’t learned about night flying. We didn’t know such things as how to judge whether we were clearing a ridge by observing whether we were seeing more and more lights, or fewer and fewer lights, on the other side. Without that simple tool we became extremely stressed about whether we would clear the mountains.

We studied our VFR chart intensely, trying to determine the elevation of the ridges in front of us. We finally selected an inbound radial to the Tucson VORTAC that we hoped would keep us in the low point between the peaks, and worked hard to stay on that radial. When the lights of Tucson started winking clearly into view, we realized we must be above any terrain between us and the airport. A wave of relief washed over us, and we started setting up for the landing.

When we reached San Diego the next day, we asked an instructor how we could have avoided the stress of that night flight into Tucson. He responded, “Well, any flight over the desert, or a large body of water like the ocean here, is effectively an IFR flight. You could easily end up in the clouds unexpectedly, because at night you won’t be able to see them. Plus, the lack of lights below you makes it very difficult to control the aircraft unless you rely on the instruments. So the best thing would be to get your instrument ratings, and file IFR at night. But until then, you could buy instrument en route charts and follow their routes and altitudes when you fly at night. At least you’d stay clear of the terrain.”

We have often thought back about our introduction to night flying and what all we missed because of it. Our instructor was most certainly, in his mind, helping us out by making it easy for us to do what we wanted to do. He was apparently thinking that what he had to teach us about night flying was the physical skills involved in departing from and returning to the runway, and that we could learn that safely on our own.

However, our early night-flying experiences illustrate that we had far more to learn than just the physical skill of night takeoffs and landings. The list of things we had missed was large, comprising most of the knowledge we needed to manage the risks associated with night flying.

But I believe the most important thing we missed was developing the ongoing habit of using that knowledge to systematically identify the risks for each night flight and come up with mitigation strategies. It isn’t difficult. We just hadn’t been taught to do it, and didn’t have the habit. We had yet to learn that good risk management means always anticipating what could go wrong.

Simply carrying a flashlight with us, even if we weren’t planning on flying at night, would have been a great idea. And if we had done a careful preflight inspection of the panel lights in our rental Yankee we would not have flown out over the ocean in the dark, and would have avoided a lot of risk and stress.

Our experience in learning about night flying illustrates the progression of flight training in the little over 100 years of powered flight. In the early days of flying, instructors mostly thought of themselves as teaching the skills required to fly. When John and I learned to fly, we were given no course of ground instruction. We were just told to get books and read them. Even today, some instructors feel the teaching of “risk management” somehow interferes with their “real job” of teaching skills.

I think we are living examples of why the upcoming Airmen Certification Standards (ACS) will require pilots to demonstrate the ability to identify, assess, and mitigate risk, and why it is so important to the future of aviation.

29 Comments

  1. David Kraul

    I learned to fly in Hawaii in the early 1980s and was a sight-seeing pilot as well as a CFII MEI for many years. An instructor and I were on our third practice night VOR approach to HNL’s 4R when we simply flew into the water. The C172 inverted instantly and stayed afloat at least for the hour it took us to reach the shoreline, all of which took place in pitch black conditions. I do not live there anymore, but I would strongly advise several hours of training with a seasoned Hawaii instructor before renting any aircraft there, not just for the night environment, but for winds gusting to 30 knots, terrain rising to 14,000 feet, and over water navigation that has consumed many an unwary visitor.

  2. Peter Klentos

    Hello Mr. and Mrs King,

    Thank you for the writing about your experience in flying at night. I received my pilot’s license back in 2008 and then in 2009 I became instrument rated. What I learned in this short period of flying, is we must always review the risks before getting into the cockpit. Ongoing training and learning is necessity.

    Your DVD and courses have been invaluable.

    Thank you for your contribution to the aviation community.

    Sincerely,
    Peter Klentos

  3. Ken Weinberg

    This is why I love John and Martha King. They are at the top of the GA food chain yet they are humble enough to share their mistakes unlike others. It gives me hope and makes me feel better about my own errors and that I can overcome them. We can all learn from this. Heck if it could happen to them it could happen to anyone! They are inspiring.

  4. Rob Peppler

    Fantastic article!! I’m trying to get back into flying after a very long hiatus!! And this helps to bring into perspective how much I need to refresh and more!!
    Thank You,
    Rob

  5. Fred Newberry

    Martha, this is a great article! You are right, instructors should teach risk management in addition to teaching flying skills. Simple things such as carrying a flashlight on night flights is a great example. Thanks!

  6. Peegee

    Hello,
    Cats cannot see in the black night, fortunately they have whiskers… The olds planes have waistcoat pocket watch, compass, altimeter and, also, some “olds” pilots : They are no “goods pilots” they where only “olds pilots”. (Please, excuse my bad English)
    Yours truly
    Peegee

  7. Donald Henderson

    “But as we approached Tucson, we began to realize that the black area below and ahead of us was the mountain ridges which we needed to cross on our way to the airport. It was then that we began to understand the significance of what we hadn’t learned about night flying. We didn’t know such things as how to judge whether we were clearing a ridge by observing whether we were seeing more and more lights, or fewer and fewer lights, on the other side. Without that simple tool we became extremely stressed about whether we would clear the mountains.”

    You will clear a ridge or any obstacle if it appears to be moving up as you get closer to it. Thanks.

  8. Steve

    While watching all their videos over the years, I had assumed that we were learning the life saving tips that the Kings had been taught by others. It had never occurred to me that John and Martha were sharing so many of the lessons that they had learned the hard way.

    It’s the pioneers that take the arrows. Thank you John and Martha King.

  9. Lynn Brown

    Excellent article on the risks of night flying. As a young naval aviator, I was issued a gooseneck flashlight, which I clipped to my survival vest and aimed at the instrument panel. For all carrier takeoffs and landings at night, I turned it on and focused it on the panel. One very dark night the lights went out in the cockpit during a carrier catapult launch. We actually had a set of green lights right on the bow of the ship and once those disappeared there was no light or horizon. The only thing that kept me and my passengers and crew out of the water was the flashlight on the attitude indicator and altimeter. It is indeed very dark over water or deserts, and more than a few planes have flown into water or terrain because of it. Instruments are your only friends, and as Martha correctly points out, you need to be able to see them.

  10. Robert Stambovsky

    King- Excellent product.
    Flying aircraft is not a “hobby”. It’s a passion ,then very serious intense use of intellect, motor skills, practice, and continuous study.
    R. Stambovsky, ATP

  11. Donald Henderson

    Let me change the last paragraph of the above to read, ” * * * appears to be moving down as you get closer to it.

  12. Dave Widby

    John and Martha are my very favorite aviation instructors. I love John’s sense of humor, maybe 30 some years ago when he told me you can greatly reduce your alligator fighting time by using flight following especially over the swamps, that has stuck with me ever since.
    Thanks for a great job!!

    Dave Widby

  13. Chul Moon

    Dear Martha King

    O ho!!!
    1969?
    Elementary school student at that time I was. 😉
    Thanks for reading your experience.

    Good hug.

  14. Thomas "Slick" Vance

    This is a reply to this “dark of night” article and an earlier one that you wrote called, “When Not to Talk to ATC.”

    I flew from Navy aircraft carriers for twenty years and night flying over the open ocean was a daily (nightly) occurrance since flight operations were usually scheduled from noon to midnight to keep all the pilots current in night landings. One nice thing about flying over the open ocean is that MSL and AGL are equal to each other so the problem you had approaching Tucson does not exist except, of course, when one is engaged in combat operations over land. But the problem you had flying between the islands in Hawaii does if we lose those electrics. Fortunately, we are prepared with a flashlight conveniently attached to the front of our survival vests where it can readily come into play if a complete electrical failure should occur. Happily, since we have backup systems, losing the lighting in the instrument panel is a rare occurrance. As for the Tucson experience, I regularly was faced with the same terrain clearance problem as you when I flew combat missions at night in the A-6 Intruder over North Vietnam. The A-6 mission was to attack at low altitude. Our normal operating altitude at night was 500 feet AGL, and although North Vietnam is primarily flat to the East, there are karst ridges that stick up above 500 feet AGL and as one flies north and west the terrain becomes more mountainous. When attacking targets in the more mountainous areas, a bombardier in the A-6 was taught that if the terrain started to fill in on the back of a ground surveillance radar shadow created by irregular terrain ahead, then clearance over that terrain was probably assurred, just as seeing more and more of the lights of Tucson in front of you as you approached the city. But Cherokee 140s (in which I received my Private and Commercial Certificates and Instrument rating back in the 60s before joining the Navy) are not as well equipped as my A-6. Regardless, your pre-flight planning should have been a little more comprehensive for the flight into Tucson giving you a thorough understanding of the terrain and a well-developed plan for avoiding it either VFR or IFR.

    Most of all, I would like to comment on your experience in the article entitled, “When Not to Talk to ATC.” Within the last couple of years, a Bonanza pilot could not get his gear down at night approaching Oklahoma City. The rest of the airplane was apparently working fine. He spent a lot of time with ATC discussing the problem while at the same time cranking the gear down with the backup system. As I understand the system, the Bonanza emergency gear extension crank is below and behind the pilot. So, I can imagine this pilot, at night, cranking the gear and talking to ATC at the same time and eventually losing control of the aircraft and crashing with the loss of his life. Instead, he might have headed off to an area southwest of OKC and climbed to a safe altitude and then telling ATC what he was doing and that he would be there awhile to crank the gear down, safely and without distractions.

    In the Navy, we flew in international and uncontrolled airspace every day. We had no flight plans and no ATC control when we encountered IFR conditions which we would usually descend below or climb above. When IFR, and without control, we believed in the, “big sky, little airplane,” theory that a mid-air with some UAE Airbus transitting from Dubai to Paris was unlikely to occupy the same airspace as we at the same time. Your decision to aviate while unable to maintain altitude but enough to make it safely to the airport was a wise and good one. The first order of business should always be to do what is required to keep the aircraft flying as safely as possible and to worry about those sitting safely on the ground (i.e., ATC controllers) until the aviating part has become safe enough to allow it.

    I love your articles. Keep them coming. Slick

  15. Izzy

    i keep some kids light sticks in my flightbag. they always work and dont need batteries. the lanyard that comes with them may be wrapped around the conpass and dangled in front of your favorite 2 instruments.

    i also keep a hikers headlamp with me.

    for day vfr planes with long range, i found its critical to get time zone changes and sunset times correct when flying long distances west and east. i once found myself in sedalia mo in a 1947 aeronca chief (no electrical system) after dark on my 6th hour in the air desperate to locate the airport. i miscacluated sunset by 1 1/2 hours.

  16. Ron

    Thanks, Martha. Great story. I don’t fly at night much due to all those Gotcha’s, but I do know it is fun and very peaceful on “nice” nights. With clouds and mountains around, planning is a must.

  17. Chris Caampbell

    I am a Light Sport Pilot. I don’t fly at night. But from my limited experience I am fully aware of the risk of the factor of not knowing what you don’t know. It’s a huge risk! Reading articles like this helps.

  18. Pete

    The issue in managing risk is experience. Getting experience means making bad decisions and scary mistakes. Surviving these mistakes really helps future decision making (hopefully for the better). I applaud Martha and John for taking the discussion of the risks in flying to the level that they have. New pilots really need to understand just how dangerous flying small aircraft can be. This is a tough balance when we also want to promote general aviation.CFII , ATP, DPE

  19. Jane mcgehee

    Enjoyed the article. As I read it, I applied the facts of such risk assessment to myself and realized deficiencies. Good ongoing education.

  20. Zaid Osamah

    Dear Martha,
    When I read this article I felt that I was flying with you & John
    Hope you all the best
    Well done & Thanks
    Zaid

  21. franck valles

    Thanks for all of your stories. You guys are incredible.
    I have many headlamps that I keep around me at all time. One in my flight bag, and one in each plane that I fly.
    I never leave home without one.

    I remember my first night cross-country, my cfi turned off all the lights prior to me landing, to see how I would react. Runway lights were also left off. He did not want me to key in the lights.
    He was very upset when I flicked the switch of my headlamp and was able to complete the landing like nothing happened… He said that this was cheating. I replied, Yep. I love to cheat when it comes to my life, and flying…
    I commute to work from Carlsbad to Hawthorne in my Grumman, so I fly at night a lot. I also have a A36.
    Thanks

  22. Michael Fortunato

    Single engine VFR at night or open water should be prohibited. It is in many countries. Its never “safe” no matter how much planning you do. You can minimize the risks of course, but what ya gonna do if the engine quits ?

  23. Lou Gregoire

    Reading your article “In the dead of night” caused me to have flashbacks, sweating, hyperventilation, loose bowels, and a couple of other unpleasant side effects. It reminded me of a flight. I fly a helicopter air ambulance. At the time, we flew a 407 GXP with the A-Star as a backup. After months without flying an A-Star at night under goggles in other than urban areas, I found myself taking off in the North Georgia mountains in a spare A-Star that I was relatively unfamiliar with. No autopilot, and most definitely a two-hands on at all times kinda ship.
    As we left the small lighted town to climb into the mountains headed for Atlanta, the turn from town suddenly put complete darkness in front of me, horrible interior lighting glare on the windshield, and no idea how to turn down the lighting. I was blind. And those gosh darned A-Stars are so squirrely, I couldn’t take my hands off the controls to get my flashlight.
    New to the company, this was my initiation into how randomly the company had outfitted each A-Star in terms of switches, buttons, dials and knobs. Not a single one is like another.
    This one, small item of situational awareness that I failed to recognize and mitigate prior to takeoff almost killed 4 people.
    Keep doing what you’re doing. There is no telling how many lives you save by spreading the word to pilots that ANYONE is vulnerable.

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