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Night Flying Requirements for a Private Pilot

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Night flying is different from virtually any other type of flying. Risks are increased, problems get magnified and emergency options are reduced.

A majority of our information comes through the eye, and the eye is easily fooled at night. Pilots flying at night are susceptible to visual illusions such as autokinesis (the false perception of movement) and false horizons, along with visual and audio disorientation. The key is to rely on your instruments and believe in their indications, regardless of how your body feels.

Pilot Requirements

Although pilots in many countries must have an instrument rating to fly at night, only a basic Private Pilot license under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) is required in the U.S. According to the Federal Aviation Regulations, the bible of the aviation industry, specifically FAR 61.57, you cannot act as pilot in command (PIC) while carrying passengers from one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise, unless you have made three takeoffs and landings to a full stop in the same category and class of aircraft within the preceding 90 days. Don't confuse these requirements (called "currencies") with proficiency. They are only a minimum; additional training or practice may be required.

Aircraft Requirements

According to FAR 91.205, for VFR night flights, in addition to the VFR day requirements, your airplane needs position lights: a green light on the right wingtip, a red light on the left wingtip and a white light on the tail; flashing anti-collision/strobe lights; a landing light if operated for hire; an adequate source of electrical energy to operate the required electrical and radio equipment; and spare fuses accessible to the pilot in flight.

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Flight Operations

According to FAR 91.151, for VFR conditions, you must carry enough gas to reach your first point of intended landing and cover an additional 45 minutes at normal cruising speed. This is a minimum fuel reserve, not a goal to be reached. Prudent pilots always carry more than the minimum to accommodate potential problems. According to FAR 91.155, VFR visibility requirements in Class G airspace increase from 1 mile in daytime to 3 miles at night. The only exception is for operations within 1/2 mile of a runway, in which case VFR pilots can operate with 1-mile visibility while staying clear of clouds. As Robert Rossier, a contributor to "AOPA Flight Training" magazine has said, "just because it's legal doesn't make it safe. Prudent pilots typically set higher weather minimums for night VFR flights."

According to FAR 91.157, if operating under a Special VFR clearance at night, you must have an instrument rating, an instrument-equipped airplane, 1 mile visibility, be able to remain clear of clouds, and have a Special VFR clearance from air traffic control.

According to FAR 91.209, you must use position and anti-collision lights between sunset and sunrise, but this regulation says you can turn off the anti-collision lights for safety, such as when flying in precipitation.

How to Prepare

To adapt your eyes for night flying, avoid bright white lights at least 30 minutes prior to your light. The rods of your eye are least affected by red light, so use red cockpit lighting or a low-level white light and/or a red tinted flashlight.

Due to the concentration and placement of cones in the fovea of the eye, you may experience a night blind spot at the center of your vision. Once you are airborne, the most effective method for overcoming these night blind spots and looking for other aircraft is to slowly scan small sectors of the sky, and to use off-centering viewing--looking 5 degrees to 10 degrees off center of the object.

Don't forget your diet and general health. Deficiencies in vitamin A will affect the eye's ability to produce visual purple, and smoking, alcohol and a lack of oxygen can greatly decrease your night vision.

Keys to Flying at Night

Preparation for night flight must be more intensive and comprehensive. Make your initial night flight preflight during the daylight. Check all internal and external lights. Double your fuel reserves. Mark charts with black pens. (You will not be able to see red marks under red light.)

All notes, including frequencies, should be written extra large for easy readability.

Weather makes a big difference. Weather changes can occur more quickly at night than at daytime.

You have the choice to take off, but landings, even at night, are mandatory.

About the Author

When it comes to regional, market-driven cooking, many chefs talk the talk, but few walk the walk quite as ardently as Stuart Stein. Showcasing sustainable artisans across the U.S. has become a mission for this chef, author, culinary instructor and restaurateur. Additionally, Chef Stein is a private pilot flying out of the Pacific Northwest.

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