When I opened my eyes I saw nothing but the pool of night sky, for I was lying on my back with outstretched arms, face to face with that hatchery of stars. – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars
Though I am admittedly wary of the potential for crossing paths with nocturnally active critters (see Checklist), there is still something magical about night flying. Whether in the night skies as a GA pilot or as an airline passenger on a red-eye flight across the country, there’s a lot to like about what I call “after hours” aviation. Here’s a short list of my favorite things.
Alone Is Not Always Lonely
We all know it’s a Big Sky, but it can still be pretty congested with fellow GA pilots (especially around high-activity GA airports) on a nice flying day. The twilight and evening hours, though, are usually a very different story. When most other pilots have tucked their planes into tiedowns or hangars and retired to home and hearth, there’s less competition for space in the pattern, and less waiting for takeoff and landing opportunities. And, once aloft, I’ve often had the sense of being the only one flying during the night hours.
Less Clatter and Chatter
Less congestion around airports and fewer planes in the sky translate to less chatter on the radio. I’m an extravert by nature, and enough of a geek to enjoy listening to (and participating in) the aviation-speak cross-talk most of the time. Still, it’s awfully nice to get an occasional break from the din of the madding crowd. How peaceful it is to fly along in the serenity of near silence, a quiet pierced only by the necessary background “white noise” of your trusty engine.
It’s hard to imagine now, but I found it challenging to spot traffic and runways in my student pilot days. During the daytime, it can still be tough to see all the traffic you need to avoid. Night flying makes that task much easier, because a properly lit aircraft (especially one with strobes) is nearly impossible not to see against the backdrop of the inky black sky. As I wrote in Checklist, though, birds and bats are a different matter. I guess they didn’t get the memo on the use of position lighting.
Darkness dramatically simplifies the task of finding the target airport and runway. I’ll never forget the sense of giddy satisfaction when, on my first foray into “after hours” aviation, I discovered that I could light up the runway with just a few clicks of the mic. The airport beacon helps as well. On airline flights at night, I sometimes make a game of seeing how many airports I can spot via the flashing welcome of green-and-white beacon lights.
Power of Perspective
One cannot live any longer without poetry, color and love. – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars
I’ve never been in the night sky without appreciating its power to provide a new and beautiful perspective on the world. In urban areas, the cloak of darkness transforms surface sprawl into a patchwork of scintillating lights. On airports, the multi-colored lights can make it easier to get around on the ground – provided, of course, that you have a firm grasp of what each color conveys.
And what can I say about the aviator’s night view of the sky? Saint-Exupery speaks of the “hatchery of stars,” a view that contributes to the “poetry, color, and love” we all crave in this life. I recently stumbled on a YouTube video called “The Unbearable Beauty of the Night Sky” (https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=pV58YptFTK0). While few of us will ever get the opportunity to see the spectacular star fields from the large telescopes situated in the Chilean Atacama desert, we aviators do have a unique ability to see the night sky from a powerfully different perspective. May we never take that privilege for granted. (FAA Safety Briefing – NovDec2015)