We have compiled some relevant information below. There are links to full articles and GAPs here too, and you will find more information on the CAA website.
Night VFR Cross-Country
A VFR night flight should not be made under any circumstances during poor or uncertain weather conditions.
A visual horizon will not always be available at night. Use your instruments so that sudden loss of a visual horizon will not disrupt your navigation and control of the aircraft. For turning, use a medium angle of bank so you don’t lose orientation.
Increased moisture content at night requires closer carb heat monitoring.
The key to successful visual navigation at night is good planning. A good rule of thumb is: Don’t attempt to fly a route at night that you haven’t flown during the day.
If flying cross-country at night, it is highly recommended that you file a flight plan, or have flight following in place. In the case of flight following, it is vital that the person nominated knows exactly what to do, and when to do it.
Normal flight planning considerations such as weather, AIP Supplements and NOTAMs, etc, apply, but there are a number of special considerations for flight at night.
There are different minima at night – plan for this, including your own personal minimums. The weather at your alternates must be part of your plan. It is important that you check the temperature/dew point split (difference) as part of your assessment of up-to-date weather information. When the temperature drops to the dew point or close to it, it is likely that the cloud base will lower and there could be rain or fog.
Increased reserves are required at night. Consider your own personal minimum above this. Plan for diversion to your alternates. Consider availability of fuel at destination and alternates, should you need to refuel.
Must have lighting. What is the weather forecast for your alternates? Is fuel available?
Are there places you can land? Do you have the right equipment and backups? Do you have plans in place for typical situations, such as a alternator failure?
You need lighting at your departure and destination, and also your alternates. You should familiarise yourself with the type of aerodrome lighting when planning, to aid your recognition of it in flight. You need a plan should the pilot-activated lighting fail.
Plan to fly as high as possible, as this will give you better terrain clearance, better communications with ATC, and more forced-landing options. The visual navigation charts have Maximum Elevation Figures (MEFs) in each quadrangle, shown in thousands and hundreds of feet above mean sea level. The MEF is based on the highest known feature in each quadrangle, including terrain and obstructions (trees, towers, etc). Treat MEFs as representing solid obstacles. Add your safety margin to the MEF to determine a minimum safe altitude in the rectangle.
In planning your route, take into account the terrain and location of townships to improve your ability to identify features and confirm your position.
Know which features you will use as visual checks, and highlight them clearly on your chart. Features that can show up well at night are coastlines, rivers, towns, major roads, and aerodromes. It is good to use these features even if they are off-track. Mark time intervals so you know when to expect them.
Large areas of water can be hazardous because of loss of horizon and lack of landmarks for situational awareness. Reflections of stars can contribute to disorientation. They are also particularly hazardous if you need to ditch.
Finally, as you complete your planning, remember it will take 30 minutes to adapt night vision fully to low light levels.
Beyond the Circuit
Dead-reckoning navigation should be backed up by another navigation tool such as GPS, ADF, VOR, or DME. Monitor your position, time estimates, and fuel consumed.
You need to be vigilant for any change in the weather, which can happen quickly. But this can be difficult because it will often be invisible – the only time you will see fog, mist, cloud or rain is when they are over a lit area. It is very easy to enter cloud without realising it.
Usually, the first indication of flying into restricted visibility conditions is the gradual disappearance of lights on the ground. If the lights begin to take on an appearance of being surrounded by a halo or glow, you should use caution because it could indicate ground fog.
Watch for any township light patterns which adopt a different shape from expected, which change their shape while you watch, or which disappear altogether. If you see this, you should suspect low cloud, fog, or terrain.
It’s important that you monitor the temperature/dew point split, and access up-to-date weather. Learn to read the signs.
If bad weather does appear unexpectedly, good airmanship and a sound knowledge of weather phenomena will dictate whether you should turn back or divert to the nearest aerodrome that is open. If you are in any way unsure of conditions, play it safe and land.
Emergencies at Night
Night emergencies are similar to daytime ones, except that some solutions are more difficult at night. The basic principle to Aviate – Navigate – Communicate is as important as ever. In other words fly the aircraft, and seek assistance.
A communications failure is serious at night, so have a spare hand-held VHF transceiver.
An electrical failure is particularly serious. You can’t see the instrument panel, and you may lose use of flaps and landing gear. If you lose navigation lighting, others will not be able to see you. And, as if that isn’t enough, you may lose communication.
Inadvertent IMC should be covered by a pre-planned procedure. It is a good idea to practise your inadvertent IMC procedure in daylight, and to get yourself checked out in this by an instructor from time to time.
The loss of attitude flight (gyroscopic) instruments could seriously affect your ability to control the aircraft. Monitor the vacuum gauge regularly. If the attitude indicator is sluggish or topples, the performance of the indicator should be confirmed by reference to the turn coordinator, or turn and slip indicator. Being current in limited panel instrument flying is essential.
Engine failure should be treated the same as in daytime. If you are not within gliding distance of a known aerodrome or airstrip for your emergency landing, choose an area that is unlit (unpopulated), but near lights (close to assistance), if possible.
If making a precautionary or emergency landing at night, delay turning on the landing light if it could upset your night vision. Also delay turning off the Master switch until you are on the ground, so you have lighting assistance.
For helicopters, it is recommended to autorotate at night using ‘constant attitude autorotation’. This technique guards against flaring too late and landing with excess forward speed. If you are going to land in trees, try to enter the canopy tail first.
Relying on the GPS much?
Reproduced from Canadian TCA Aviation Safety Letter, Issue 3/97
Almost from the day that Doug McCurdy lifted the Silver Dart off the frozen surface of Bras d’Or Lake, pilots have sought a reliable way to stay on track while traversing the vast wilderness that makes up so much of Canada.
In the bad old days, they used maps. Often, the maps were inaccurate. But as time wore on, the maps got better. In many areas of the country, that wasn’t much help. One little lake looked much like another. So did the valleys and what-not. On a clear day, it didn’t matter too much. Pilots could see for miles and generally stayed somewhere near the intended track.
Some of the time, it wasn’t clear. Oh, there was generally enough visibility to remain in visual meteorological conditions (VMC) in visual flight rules (VFR) flight if one was flexible about how one interpreted one or two miles, but map-reading became much more difficult under those conditions.
Over the years, maps and nav aids improved. Still, for most pilots, the only time they were on track was when they unknowingly crossed it. As a result, many aviators spent considerable time being momentarily unaware of their position. For some, that moment stretched to eternity.
To get around such unhappy accidents, many incredibly talented people developed a navigation system so accurate that it could be and is used in some cities to deliver pizzas to specific residences. Aviators soon found that this system, known as the Global Positioning System (GPS), could be used to supplement the map-reading skills that were the bedrock of their VFR navigation over remote terrain. As a result, pilots flocked to buy GPS receivers that would keep them right on track.
As more and more pilots began using GPS, they started developing a great degree of confidence that it would always lead them to their destination. Confidence is one thing, over-confidence another. We’ve had a lot of reports that pilots with GPS sets are setting out on VFR flights that they would have cancelled in the past because the weather was marginal or because it was dark. This attitude has a lot of accident potential.
First of all, GPS is not infallible. As we’ve said many times in the past, GPS satellites can transmit faulty signals and, unless you have an installation certified for instrument flight rules (IFR) flight, you won’t be warned. Faulty satellites have caused 80-mile position errors in the past. Even if you have an IFR box, there will be times when there just won’t be enough satellites to navigate. What if this happens at a critical point in your flight when the visibility is too poor to map-read?
Even if there are lots of satellites, and they’re all working properly, all that GPS can do is take you to the waypoints you’ve programmed into the box. What if you’ve entered the wrong coordinates? Even experienced airline crews flying 747s have made this mistake, so what makes you immune? If you can’t see the ground well enough to confirm you’re on track, how will you know if your mistake is leading you into the side of a hill?
On the subject of controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), let’s suppose that GPS is working flawlessly and you’ve entered the correct waypoints. You’d still better have plotted your track on a map and checked for obstacles. Not just along the track, but to either side as well, and don’t forget to look for obstacles below the altitude you intend to fly.
If the weather is already bad, it could get worse, and you might have to descend or deviate. The course you’ve plotted may not give you these options, and so now you’re betting your life on the weather not changing. Does this sound like a good idea to you? Suppose you can deviate and find some better conditions. Now you’ll likely use the “Direct-To” feature on the box to continue to destination. You’d better have another look at the map at this point. Plot your new track to destination and follow all the advice we’ve given above.
For years, pilots wanted a navigation system to keep them precisely on track all the time. Now that we have it, some are replacing the risk of getting lost with the risk of flying into an obstacle. VFR navigation means being able to see the ground well enough to navigate safely.
There’s no category between VFR and IFR. Make a choice, and follow the commonsense rules that go with your choice!
Gadgets in the VFR Cockpit
Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for navigation are becoming more and more commonplace in general aviation VFR operations, including light sport and microlight aircraft. Further examples of electronic devices increasingly finding their way into VFR cockpits can include such things as electronic flight bags, iPads, e-Readers, laptops and cell phones.
An unintended human factors issue with the use of electronic navigation (and other) devices under VFR is that they can lure pilots into over‑confidence and a ‘head-in-the-cockpit’ mentality with a consequent loss of situational awareness. ‘In sight of ground or water’ means you must remain visual and stay aware of the world outside the cockpit, including the airspace, irrespective of the information the devices provide.
Carlton Campbell, an ‘A’ category flight instructor and flight examiner, previously the CAA Standards Development and Training Officer, and now the CAA’s Aviation Safety Advser in the South Island, says that when he was giving mountain flying flight instruction he increasingly found himself having to tell students to forget the GPS and to concentrate on the exercise at hand.
While a GPS can significantly assist VFR pilots, it should be used only to supplement visual navigation techniques, not as a primary navigation source.
Paul Kearney, also an ‘A’ category flight instructor and flight examiner, reiterates that the ‘self‑taught’ option is a very poor way to learn how to effectively use a GPS.
He has found pilots are prepared to spend hundreds, or even thousands of dollars on a GPS unit, yet won’t pay for a few hours with a GPS-qualified flight instructor to teach them the basic fundamentals, and how to safely use the units. Frequently, it’s the subtle features that pilots don’t discover until after they make a mistake, which often has already resulted in a problem (for example, an airspace infringement).
Under VFR, portable electronic devices are non-regulated, so the onus is on the pilot to ensure that their electronic equipment is properly maintained and has accurate up-to-date information. Regularly update the GPS database, and check it against current charts for any airspace changes.
A good principle to apply is if the GPS (or other device) failed, you would not find yourself in an unsafe or unwanted situation, and your situational awareness is such that you could safely continue as planned.
Full Vector article here.
Never stop flying the aircraft
As the ZK-III accident shows, no matter how you get yourself into the situation, you need to work hard to get yourself out of it. While the aircraft is still flyable, keep flying it all the way to the ground.
Too many accidents have occurred where the pilot stopped flying the aircraft before they had come to a complete stop. Stalling at 50 feet on approach is likely to damage your aircraft and your body significantly, if not fatally.
Remember the mantra: Aviate – Navigate – Communicate.
Have a Plan B
One of the lessons the pilot of ZK-III took home from her experience is to always have a Plan B.
In her case, it was to have thought about how to safely transition to IFR flight if she lost VFR conditions. If you are not IFR rated it is unlikely you could recover form an inadvertant entry into cloud at night – let alone after an encounter with a tree.
It could also be:
- Ensuring you always have a way out of the valley you are entering,
- Ensuring the weather at an alternate (and the flight towards it) is good enough for you to continue, or
- Knowing where you will land if you have an engine failure right now.