Night Flight and Your Checkride
by Larry Bothe, DPE, Master CFI


Since checkrides are typically conducted during daylight hours we end up testing night flying competency during the oral portion of the test. Knowledge required of the applicant includes aircraft and airport lighting, equipment, night vision, night X-C, safety and risk management, and night illusions.

In keeping with scenario-based testing, I suggest that the applicant is planning a flight that will include a return home at night, and ask the applicant what additional preparation will be required. Hopefully, among other things, the applicant will tell me that he would add the aircraft lights to his preflight inspection routine. I then likely ask what lights the applicant’s aircraft has, and of those, which ones are legally required for night flight. Sometimes I get a baffling listing of redundant lighting systems, especially if the applicant is trying to get by with rote memorization rather than true understanding. I often hear that the airplane has navigation lights, position lights, a beacon, flashing anti-collision lights, strobe lights, landing light and taxi light. By using the shotgun approach and mentioning every kind of exterior light he has ever heard of, he hopes I will say OK and move on. Too bad, but it won’t do.

The applicant is required to know about the aircraft he brought for the test, and to understand what he is talking about. When presented with the shotgun answer to the lighting question, I then take each item mentioned and ask where it is located on the airplane. Of course what I want to hear is that navigation lights and position lights are the same set of lights, and be told where they are located, and what color. When I get told that the nav lights are the red and green ones on the wingtips, with no mention of the white one facing to the rear, I immediately know that the applicant doesn’t understand the concept of determining the position and direction of travel of another aircraft from which color lights are visible. If I then inquire about position lights, I get a blank stare.

I use the same approach to the beacon/anti-collision/strobe light question. These may or may not be the same lights, depending on the airplane presented for the test. Many of the newer, composite airplanes, like Diamond and Cirrus, don’t have flashing beacons at all. They rely on wingtip strobes to meet the flashing anti-collision light requirement. The point of all this is that successful night training has to consist of more than meeting at the airport some evening after dark, doing a quick pre-flight, and then doing 8 takeoffs and landings, followed by another lesson where the obligatory night cross-country is accomplished.

To see what aircraft lights look like from various positions, see the examogram entitled Night Flight and Aircraft Lights. There is a multimedia presentation that lets you view them in a night sky.

Proper night training begins with a ground school session where aircraft and airport lighting is taught, and the potential for duplication of terms explained. Other subjects covered in that ground session should include night vision, illusions, disappearance of the threshold lights, night cross-country flight planning (altitude to fly, visual checkpoint selection, etc.), engine failure at night, ground fog, night vision, and the rules for night currency and light usage. You can rest assured that any student may be quizzed about these things during the oral.

The word “beacon” can be very confusing to the low-time student. Are we talking about the flashing white and green rotating beacon at the airport? The flashing red light on top of the vertical stabilizer? Or the non-directional beacon (NDB) located 4 NM off the field? Before you sit down for your oral exam, make sure you know the differences.

When discussing night cross-country flight planning, expect to talk about selecting visual checkpoints. Applicants always want to pick large towns, the ones depicted in yellow on the sectional chart. Those larger ones are not always the best choice, especially when they more than 5 NM, off to the side of the course line. If the visibility is less than severe-clear you might miss them entirely, and in any case it is difficult to know exactly when you are at the checkpoint because the distant large town is off your wingtip for some time. The better choice is one of the very small towns, represented by a tiny open circle, which is right along the route of flight. Even those small towns have some street lights in the town square, and are actually easy to spot at night. You’ll be able to mark your time accurately because you’ll pass right over or just beside a very small spot.

Radio towers, by themselves, make very poor checkpoints. Why? Because even though they are easy to see, there are too many of them. You can never be sure if the one you are passing is the one you selected or another one just a few miles away. It is better to relegate radio towers to a confirming role. You come to a town you selected as a checkpoint, but you need to confirm that the town you see is the selected one. There’s a radio tower just north of town, on the chart. Looking out the window, you see the tower north of town. The town is very likely the one you wanted.

As a DPE, I am very disappointed in the flight instructor if, when discussing the need for a landing light (required only when carrying paying passengers, 135 or 121 flights), I learn that for the 8-landing lesson the instructor just sat there while the student did the 8 takeoffs and landings, and did nothing else. This is one of the hallmarks of the uncaring, time-building instructor. Typically, after 2 or 3 night landings, the student learns that they aren’t much different or more difficult than day landings. If the instructor just sits there for 5 more, he’s almost taking the student’s money under false pretenses. It doesn’t take any longer to run through a series of failure scenarios where the student gets to land without the landing light, no panel lights, no landing light or panel lights, and a simulated complete electrical failure with no panel or landing lights, and no (electric) flaps. While there is no FAA requirement for these failure scenarios, they don’t take any extra time or cost extra money, and not doing them is huge waste of a golden training opportunity. Make sure your instructor covers these simulated failures and realize how easy they are to deal with. Then, years later when one of them happens for real, it won't be the first time you've experienced it.



© Copyright 2015 by Larry Bothe. All Rights Reserved.