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