Helicopter Night Flight

The night flying environment and the techniques used when flying at night, depend on outside conditions. Flying on a bright, clear, moonlit evening when the visibility is good and the wind is calm is not much different from flying during the day. However, if flying on an overcast night over a sparsely populated area, with few or no outside lights on the ground, the situation is quite different. Visibility is restricted, so be more alert in steering clear of obstructions and low clouds. Options are also limited in the event of an emergency, as it is more difficult to find a place to land and determine wind direction and speed. At night, rely more heavily on the aircraft systems, such as lights, flight instruments, and navigation equipment. As a precaution, if visibility is limited or outside references are inadequate, strongly consider delaying the flight until conditions improve, unless proper instrument flight training has been received and the helicopter has the appropriate instrumentation and equipment.


Aircraft preflight inspection is a critical aspect of flight safety. It must comply with the appropriate rotorcraft flight manual. Preflight should be scheduled as early as possible in the flight planning sequence, preferably during daylight hours, allowing time for maintenance assistance and correction. If a night preflight is necessary, a flashlight with an unfiltered lens (white light) should be used to supplement lighting. Oil and hydraulic fluid levels and leaks are difficult to detect with a blue-green or red lens. Windscreens are checked ensuring they are clean and relatively free of scratches. Slight scratches are acceptable for day flight but may not be for night flight. The search light or landing light should be positioned for the best possible illumination during an emergency descent.

Careful attention must be paid to the aircraft electrical system. In helicopters equipped with fuses, a spare set is required by regulation, and common sense, so make sure they are on board. If the helicopter is equipped with circuit breakers, check to see that they are not tripped. A tripped circuit breaker may be an indication of an equipment malfunction and should be left for maintenance to troubleshoot.

All aircraft operating between sunset and sunrise are required to have operable navigation (position) lights. Turn these lights on during the preflight to inspect them visually for proper operation. Between sunset and sunrise, these lights must be on any time the helicopter is operating.

All recently manufactured aircraft certificated for night flight must have an anticollision light that makes the aircraft more visible to other pilots. This light is either a red or white flashing light and may be in the form of a rotating beacon or a strobe. While anticollision lights are required for night visual flight rules (VFR) flights, they may be turned off any time they create a distraction for the pilot.

One of the first steps in preparation for night flight is becoming thoroughly familiar with the helicopter’s cockpit, instrumentation, and control layout. It is recommended that a pilot practice locating each instrument, control, and switch, both with and without cabin lights. Since the markings on some switches and circuit breaker panels may be difficult to read at night, be able to locate and use these devices, and read the markings in poor light conditions. Before starting the engine, make sure all necessary equipment and supplies needed for the flight, such as charts, notepads, and flashlights, are accessible and ready for use.

Cockpit Lights

Check all interior lights with special attention to the instrument and panel lights. The panel lighting can usually be controlled with a rheostat or dimmer switch, allowing the pilot to adjust the intensity. If a particular light is too bright or causes reflection or glare off the windshield, it should be adjusted or turned off. As ambient level decreases from twilight to darkness, intensity of the cockpit lights is reduced to a low, usable intensity level that reduces any glare or reflection off the windshield. The light level should be adjusted to as close to the ambient light level as possible. A flashlight, with red or blue-green lens filter, or map light can supplement the available light in the cockpit. Always carry a flashlight with fresh batteries to provide an alternate source of light if the interior lights malfunction. If an existing map/utility light is used, it should be hand held or remounted to a convenient location. In order to retain night adaptation use low level light when using your checklist. Brief you passengers in the importance of light discipline during night flight so the pilot is not blinded and loses dark adaptation.

Engine Starting and Rotor Engagement

Use extra caution when starting the engine and engaging the rotors, especially in dark areas with little or no outside lights. In addition to the usual call of “clear,” turn on the position and anticollision lights. If conditions permit, also turn the landing light on momentarily to help warn others that the engine is about to start and engage the rotors.

Taxi Technique

Landing lights usually cast a beam that is narrow and concentrated ahead of the helicopter, so illumination to the side is minimal. Therefore, slow the taxi at night, especially in congested ramp and parking areas. Some helicopters have a hover light in addition to a landing light, which illuminates a larger area under the helicopter.

When operating at an unfamiliar airport at night, ask for instructions or advice concerning local conditions, so as to avoid taxiing into areas of construction, or unlighted, unmarked obstructions. Ground controllers or UNICOM operators are usually cooperative in furnishing this type of information.


Before takeoff, make sure that there is a clear, unobstructed takeoff path. At airports, this is accomplished by taking off over a runway or taxi way, however, if operating off-airport, pay more attention to the surroundings. Obstructions may also be difficult to see if taking off from an unlighted area. Once a suitable takeoff path is chosen, select a point down the takeoff path to use for directional reference. The landing light should be positioned in order to illuminate the tallest obstacles in the takeoff path. During a night takeoff, notice a lack of reliable outside visual references after becoming airborne. This is particularly true at small airports and offairport landing sites located in sparsely populated areas. To compensate for the lack of outside references, use the available flight instruments as an aid. Check the altimeter and the airspeed indicator to verify the proper climb attitude. An attitude indicator, if installed, can enhance attitude reference.

The first 500 feet of altitude after takeoff is considered to be the most critical period in transitioning from the comparatively well-lit airport or heliport into what sometimes appears to be total darkness. A takeoff at night is usually an “altitude over airspeed” maneuver, meaning a pilot most likely performs a nearly maximum performance takeoff. This improves the chances for obstacle clearance and enhances safety.

En Route Procedures

In order to provide a higher margin of safety, it is recommended that a cruising altitude somewhat higher than normal be selected. There are three reasons for this. First, a higher altitude gives more clearance between obstacles, especially those that are difficult to see at night, such as high tension wires and unlighted towers. Second, in the event of an engine failure, there is more time to set up for a landing and the greater gliding distance gives more options for a safe landing. Third, radio reception is improved, particularly if using radio aids for navigation.

During preflight planning, it is recommended that a route of flight that is within reach of an airport, or any safe landing site, be selected when possible. It is also recommended that pilots fly as close as possible to a populated or lighted area, such as a highway or town. Not only does this offer more options in the event of an emergency, but also makes navigation a lot easier. A course comprised of a series of slight zigzags to stay close to suitable landing sites and well-lit areas, only adds a little more time and distance to an otherwise straight course.

In the event of a forced landing at night, use the same procedure recommended for day time emergency landings. If available, turn on the landing light during the final descent to help in avoiding obstacles along the approach path.

Collision Avoidance at Night

Because the quantity and quality of outside visual references are greatly reduced, a pilot tends to focus on a single point or instrument, making him or her less aware of the other traffic around. Make a special effort to devote enough time to scan for traffic. As discussed previously in the site, effective scanning is accomplished with a series of short, regularly spaced eye movements that bring successive areas of the sky into the central visual field. Each movement should not exceed 10 degrees, and each area should be observed for at least 1 second to enable detection. If the pilot detects a dimly lit object in a certain direction, the pilot should not look directly at the object, but scan the area adjacent to it, called off-center viewing. This will decrease the chances of fixating on the light and allow focusing more on the objects (e.g., tower, aircraft, ground lights). Short stops of a few seconds in duration in each scan will help to detect the light and its movement. A pilot can determine another aircraft’s direction of flight by interpreting the position and anticollision lights, as previously described. When scanning, pilots should also remember to move their heads, not just their eyes. Physical obstructions can cover a considerable amount of sky, and the area can easily be uncovered by a small head movement.

Approach and Landing

Night approaches and landings do have some advantages over daytime approaches, as the air is generally smoother and the disruptive effects of turbulence and excessive crosswinds are often absent. However, there are a few special considerations and techniques that apply to approaches at night. For example, when landing at night, especially at an unfamiliar airport, make the approach to a lighted runway and then use the taxiways to avoid unlighted obstructions or equipment.

Carefully controlled studies have revealed that pilots have a tendency to make lower approaches at night than during the day. This is potentially dangerous as there is a greater chance of hitting an obstacle, such as an overhead wire or fence, that is difficult to see. It is good practice to make steeper approaches at night, increasing the probability of clearing obstacles. Monitor altitude and rate of descent using the altimeter.

Another pilot tendency during night flight is to focus too much on the landing area and not pay enough attention to airspeed. If too much airspeed is lost, a settling-with-power condition may result. Maintain the proper attitude during the approach, and ensure that you keep some forward airspeed and movement until close to the ground. Outside visual references for airspeed and rate of closure may not be available, especially when landing in an unlit area, so pay special attention to the airspeed indicator.

Although the landing light is a helpful aid when making night approaches, there is an inherent disadvantage. The portion of the landing area illuminated by the landing light seems higher than the dark area surrounding it. This effect can cause a pilot to terminate the approach at an altitude that is too high, which may result in a settling-with-power condition and a hard landing.

Illusions Leading to Landing Errors

Various surface features and atmospheric conditions encountered in landing can create illusions of incorrect height above and distance from the runway threshold. Landing errors from these illusions can be prevented by anticipating them during approaches, conducting an aerial visual inspection of unfamiliar airports before landing, using electronic glideslope or VASI systems when available, and maintaining optimum proficiency in landing procedures.

Featureless Terrain Illusion

An absence of ground features, as when landing over water, darkened areas, and terrain made featureless by snow, can create the illusion that the aircraft is at a higher altitude than it actually is. The pilot who does not recognize this illusion will fly a lower approach.

Atmospheric Illusions

Rain on the windscreen can create the illusion of greater height, and atmospheric haze can create the illusion of being at a greater distance from the runway. The pilot who does not recognize these illusions flies a lower approach. Penetration of fog can create the illusion of pitching up. The pilot who does not recognize this illusion steepens the approach, often quite abruptly.

Ground Lighting Illusions

Lights along a straight path, such as a road, and even lights on moving trains can be mistaken for runway and approach lights. Bright runway and approach lighting systems, especially where few lights illuminate the surrounding terrain, may create the illusion of less distance to the runway.

The pilot who does not recognize this illusion flies a higher approach. Conversely, the pilot overflying terrain which has few lights to provide height cues may make a lower than normal approach.