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Night Flight Refresher: A Look at some Commonly Misunderstood Requirements

by Stephen Lewis

in Aviation Blog, Flying Tips

Most general aviation (GA) pilots with at least a private pilot certificate probably think night flight requirements are no big deal. Flip on the nav lights, make three stop-n-gos, and you’re good to go for the next 90 days, right? On the surface, night currency requirements are fairly cut and dry. However, the FAA’s official night requirements are a bit more complicated and deserve a little extra attention on the part of many GA pilots.

What’s in a Name?

For starters, what exactly is “night” time? As far as the FAA is concerned, this is a very valid question. In the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), the feds have come up with at least three different definitions for “night;” all of which affect the regulations relevant to GA night operations. With this many nights floating around in the FAA lexicon, a brief review of each is a good place to begin understanding just what the feds expect of us.

The first, and official, night comes from 14 CFR 1.1, which explains the FAA’s general definitions for a variety of aviation-related terminology. In this case, night is defined as, “the time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight, as published in the Air Almanac, converted to local time.” Doesn’t seem too difficult, does it? Pay attention to the exact wording, as this will come into play when we look at the other nights in the FAA vocabulary.

Our next stop is 14 CFR 61.57(b), labeled as “night” takeoff and landing experience. This section reads in part, “no person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise, unless within the preceding 90 days that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop during the period beginning 1 hour after sunset and ending 1 hour before sunrise.” A tad verbose, but this version is also important if we want to remain in the FAA’s good graces. Now let’s check out the third definition.

Last one I promise. To give this version relevance, let’s first take a quick look at 14 CFR 91.205(c). Using the FAA’s exact wording, this regulation states, “For VFR flight at ‘night,’ the following instruments and equipment are required:” Pay particular attention to item #2, approved position lights. Now, if we jump to 14 CFR 91.209(a), we see “during the period from sunset to sunrise,” with a specific notation requiring the use of position lights. If you’ve hung with me this far, you can breathe a sigh of relief now that we’re done with the legalese.

Tying it all Together

Don’t worry if you’re a little confused at this point. To gain a better grasp of this evil FAA multi-night-definition scheme, let’s use the regs in a real-world example. Harnessing the power of the web, I’m able to determine today’s (March 14, 2013) twilight times for my hometown. Per FAR 1.1, night for me is 7:29 pm until 6:41am tomorrow morning. This is the time I would use to log night time in my logbook, though as you’ll see below, not all of this time can be used for currency purposes.

Referring back to FAR 61.57(b)’s definition, I can again use the web to determine official sunrise and sunset at my location. For this evening and tomorrow morning, these times are 7:01pm and 7:07am respectively. For passenger-carrying purposes, I would need to be night current to fly anyone between 8:01pm tonight until 6:07am tomorrow morning. If I wasn’t current, this is the window I could use to perform my three full-stop takeoffs and landings. Notice that, in accordance with definition #1, I could legally fly with passengers for up to 32 minutes this evening and/or 34 minutes tomorrow morning at “night,” while logging “night” time, without being “night” current. Just wait, it only gets better.

Going back to definition #3, and the official sunset/sunrise times determined above, we know that I must have my aircraft’s position lights on from at least 7:01 pm tonight until 7:07 am tomorrow to be in compliance with FARs 91.205(c) and 91.209(a). Now let’s merge the three nights together. Basically, I have to have my “night” position lights on for 28 minutes before I can log “night” time, 1 hour before I can get “night’ current, for one hour after my “night” currency window closes, and for 26 minutes after I have to stop logging “night” flight time. Don’t hate me. I’m just the messenger.

Quite a System

As you’re now well aware, not all night time is created equal. It’s entirely possible to legally log night time and fly passengers at night without actually being night current.  Additionally, the FAA expects you to comply with the night position light requirement when it’s not technically night. Yes, it’s a very convoluted system. However, a solid knowledge of these nuances can come in handy if you’re ever asked to show your logbook to an FAA inspector. At the very least, you’re bound to impress your flight instructor.

In future posts, we’ll look at other common aviation misconceptions and dispel myths that are prevalent amongst the GA crowd. Until then, remember the subtleties above for your next “night” flight.

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