Night Flight in the Mountains
Flying VFR at Night in the Colorado Rockies
Simply from reading the headline some of you may respond “that’s crazy.” In reality night flight through the mountains can be more dangerous, but there are things a pilot can do to minimize the risk. If you pick the right night, night flight in the mountains can also be very rewarding.
I spent yesterday evening on a flight with a student traveling from Eagle Airport to Denver International and back. The flight departed and returned to Eagle in the dark. The flight itself was very enjoyable, and a pleasure to do.
In itself, night flight can be hazardous. Add a crossing of the Colorado Rockies and the hazards only increase. As I told my student, there are things a pilot can do to minimize these hazards and manage the risks; the following are my thoughts on night flight through the mountains…
Night flight in the mountains requires the pilot to be operating at their peak. This is the case for flying skills, planning skills, and medical/psychological condition. If you’re not fully 100% up to the task then it’s just better to stay home.
Planning is essential. Get a weather briefing, file a flight plan, understand the conditions, look at charts, and review forecasts. Review your route, draw it on the map, have nav aid info ready. If you have a GPS, preload the route. Do everything possible to ensure your attention is on flight operations and not on trying to plan a flight as you fly it.
In the mountains at night is no time to be second-guessing the weather. If it’s not ideal, it’s not a good idea. If you’re new to night flying in the mountains you may want to make your first voyage on a clear night with a full moon. In the winter, with a full moon there is an amazing amount of visibility because of reflected light off the snow.
When you plan your route, plan it with possible outs by over flying many airports. Since airports are generally in the valley and not on the mountain doing so will also keep you over lower terrain where the visual reference of lights is below. Just before you launch open your flight plan. Also, if possible use flight following, ATC can help guide you and keep you out of trouble if problems do arise – remember they’re a resource for you. If you paid your taxes then you paid their salary, you have a right to use that service.
Make sure you’re rested, well fed, and up to the challenge. If that’s not the case pick another night. At night I generally fly higher altitudes, crossing the Continental Divide at Corona Pass at night I might fly 15,500 east and 16,500 west. This means have Oxygen! Oh… and use it. Oxygen will make your night vision sharper…. if you don’t believe me; go to the USAF Altitude Chamber Training. Another important consideration is to allow your night vision to adapt. I sometimes just sit in the car for 30 minutes in the dark before the flight to accomplish this.
Aircraft Condition & Preflight
Assuming you’ve done everything to mitigate the above risks, the largest remaining risk will be that of an equipment failure like an engine failure. For this reason it’s essential to do a very good job on the preflight inspection. The preflight can be a challenge at night, sometimes it’s helpful to do the preflight before sunset and then wait for it to get dark. Do the most through preflight you know how to do, and then do it again. It’s also a good idea to organize the cockpit so you can find things in the dark. Have lights available to see charts, etc.
The up side of night flight is that it’s easier to find airports, see traffic, and often the air is smoother. A night flight under a full moon through the snow covered Rockies is truly a unique experience that few people get to enjoy. It’s definitely worth the extra work.