written by: Jason C. Chavis•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 4/29/2010
A plane flying at night can hold many challenges to a pilot. The overall effects of night flying results in visual impairment for the operator. In order to overcome these problems, many procedures and advanced training is utilized during flights in darkness.
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Licensing a Pilot for Night Flying
Since the ability to pilot a plane flying at night is so important, most countries require those operating aircraft at a commercial capacity to receive training in night flying. This training includes specialized objectives that enable a pilot to understand the effects of night flying. Those seeking Private Pilots Licenses (PPL) can obtain extensions for night flying, although this is not mandatory. On the other hand, a person seeking a Commercial Pilot License (CPL) or Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) are required to receive this training. The parameters and requirements, however, vary greatly depending on the country, including the amount of time trained on the concept.
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Considerations for Flying at Night
In order to fly at night, aircraft are generally required to stock additional equipment aboard the plane for emergency situations such as weather conditions. All navigational and position lighting must be in proper working order and a full emergency kit must be in place aboard the craft. In addition, all planes flying during nighttime hours are required to be fueled fully as a contingency. Certain rules are also in place depending on the nation regarding the height of plane operation. Prior to operation, pilots are also required to make a check of all ground-based navigational facilities en route to the destination. This helps to prevent problems and ensures that any situations that may arise can be addressed in a timely and appropriate manner.
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Importance of Knowing Your Destination and Route
Some of the most important considerations to remember when piloting a plane flying at night is to understand the pathway to the ultimate destination. The effects of night flying are responsible for a large number of aviation accidents every year, particularly amongst smaller passenger planes. For example, if the plane is to fly near or over water, certain precautions need to be taken in the event of an emergency water landing. Especially during nighttime conditions, water landings are often safer than attempting an on-land landing due to a lack of visibility. This means that life jackets need to be stocked aboard the aircraft, with a special note to make sure there are enough for each passenger and crew member. Most fatalities in water landings occur after the plane has touched down and a person drowns from a lack of a life preserver.
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Effects on the Human Eye
The most important factor to remember about night flying is the simple reactions of human eyes when attempting to operate at night. Since people are not nocturnal, eyes do not function at complete capacity during a lack of light. Eyes use two types of receptors to detect light: rods and cones. During the daytime, cones are used to see color-sensitive light in a process known as photopic vision. Rods are used in low light conditions in the process of scotopic vision. With scotopic vision, one does not readily see color, impacting the ability of a pilot to see different features while flying.
In order to accomplish the necessary adaptations for proper night flying, the eye needs to make adjustments. First, the pupil allows more light to enter the eye. This increases as the pilot spends more time flying at night. At the same time, the cones cease to function and the rods take over nearly all vision duties using a pigment called rhodopsin, also known as visual purple.
According to research, one of the best things a pilot can do before flying at night is to prepare for duty in an environment with red light.
Although piloting a plane flying at night can be dangerous, many adaptations both physically and technically ensure these situations have the best chances for success. The effects of night flying impact nearly all aspects of aviation procedures, but with proper training and good planning, a flight can be handled with minimal issues.