Have you ever been on a night time flight? If you’re a frequent flyer, chances are, you have.
For the passenger, not much is different. In the day, you’re awake. You might be chatting with your family, having a snack, or watching a show. In the night, you sleep.
But what about pilots? You might be wondering: Do they need to be more alert at night? How do pilots navigate in the dark? Is flying at night dangerous?
In short, flying at night is not dangerous. It poses a few more risks than flying during the day, but these are routine risks for pilots. In fact, pilots use the same radars and navigation systems to fly the plane in the night vs. the day. So night or day flying is incredibly safe.
You might be wondering: does night flying require any specific training? The answer is yes. There are specific requirements for night flying that every pilot must complete before flying passengers. You may have more experienced pilots or less experienced pilots. But every one will go through the same training before they can fly at night.
Beginning pilots must complete takeoffs and landings at night, as well as night navigation around the airport before landing. Each pilot has a flight instructor that approves them for nighttime flying if they pass their tests.
The FAA even defines “night” to make sure that pilots are ready to fly in the darkest times of the day. Night refers to the time period from one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise. Pilot training for night time flying is only conducted during this time.
When an instructor approves a pilot, they are legally allowed to fly passengers at night. Every 90 days, pilots must make three takeoffs and landings during the night as defined by the FAA. Otherwise they will lose that privilege until an instructor approves them again.
If pilots are going cross country, they will receive special training to effectively use navigation instruments and systems. Because pilots can’t see the skies, they have to rely on instruments when flying at night. They have to pay close attention to several areas. Maintaining altitude, detecting and avoiding obstacles or other aircraft, locating airports, and managing turbulence are some of the important aspects of night flying.
Is flying at night more dangerous than flying in the day?
Night time accidents are more fatal than day time accidents, but the bulk of them occur during the day. So, technically, based on fatalities, night time flying is more dangerous. But don’t let this rattle you. The tools today’s pilots use to navigate and ensure a safe flight should put you at ease. Pilots don’t need to see to navigate. Not to mention the skies are not busy at night and the wind is typically gentle.
Compare flying to a common activity like driving. Driving at night is incredibly dangerous – about half of traffic deaths happen at night. Chances are high that you drive at night all the time. Flying doesn’t have anywhere near this discrepancy between day and night, and it’s much safer than driving.
Is it harder to fly a plane at night?
Pilots with less night time flying experience will find it difficult to fly at night at the start. But once they get acclimated to flying at night, it will become second nature. Experienced pilots see nighttime flying as routine. It does involve quite a few adjustments on the pilot’s part, but the pilot will be well-prepared thanks to his extensive night time training.
Here are a few things that pilots have to be wary of while night flying. By the time pilots fly passengers, they are fully aware of all of these hurdles thanks to their extensive training.
Circadian rhythms will be different, since pilots need to be awake throughout the night.
This may cause some fatigue as pilots start their training. But eventually a pilot’s rhythms will align with the nighttime schedule so they’ll have energy while flying.
They might mistake light patterns for objects or the horizon.
At night, when a pilot’s only stimulus is at times bright city lights or streetlights, the brain might interpret them as an object or a horizon. This of course won’t be an issue when they’re at 35,000 feet, outside of lights from other aircraft. But during takeoff and landing pilots must be aware of how their brain will interpret light.
Their eyes may take a while to adjust to the surroundings.
Flying at night can put heavy strain on a pilot’s eyes. Between the bright lights of the pilot’s navigation controls, the inside plane lighting, and the total darkness of the outside, that’s a lot of stimuli. When shifting between bright lights and darkness, it will take time for the eyes to acclimate.
Some people may find it more difficult to adjust while others will have no problem. In the pilot’s training they will already be fully acclimated to the volatile lighting.
Pilots often carry flashlights with a red lens instead of a white lens. This puts significantly less strain on the eyes and makes it easier to adjust from reading instruments to looking outside. If they use a white light flashlight in the cockpit, it can take 15 minutes or more to reacclimate their eyes after using it.
Pilots have to rely on their instruments.
While pilots can confirm what their instrument reads in the day by looking outside, that’s not true in the nighttime. Pilots have to suppress any “gut feeling” about what they are seeing and quell any doubt they have in their instruments. Flight navigation instruments are heavily tested and inspected before planes can take to the skies. So pilots have to trust that and rely on their instruments when they don’t have other ways to confirm what they are seeing.
Beyond circadian rhythms, adjusting to nighttime flying may be draining at first.
Between eye strain, relying fully on instruments, and adjusting sleep rhythms, a pilot may feel a lot of stress and strain when they start night flying training. It might even feel like an entirely different task compared to day flying. But with time, pilots will adapt. Just be prepared to have a few difficult flights to start before things start running smoothly.
Do pilots prefer flying at night?
It depends on the pilot. Some pilots may prefer flying at night because they are so used to the sleep schedule and they’ve done it so many times. On the other hand, some pilots are not even certified to fly at night because they pretty much exclusively fly during the day. Daytime flying is much more common than night flying.
There are a few advantages and disadvantages to night flying that we’ll go over below.
Night Flying Advantages
- Less turbulence thanks to calm winds
The wind tends to calm down during the night. This reduces turbulence for passengers and makes flying a little easier for the pilot. Of course, as you have probably seen in movies, the “dark and stormy night” could happen. But this is quite rare. Before departing, pilots know exactly what the weather conditions will be. They’ll have a route planned out that avoids harsh weather to keep passengers safe. It’s possible that the weather could change, but in that case pilots communicate with air traffic control. They’ll either change their route in real time or carefully navigate through the rough weather.
- Less air traffic
Most airplane traffic happens during the day, so the nights will be pretty quiet. Less air traffic means less objects on the radar to worry about which makes flying much easier. Also, air traffic control can plan out a quick route. They won’t have to account for the path of dozens of other planes.
- Nice view of skylines and city lights
Ok, as a pilot, maybe you’re not paying so much attention to the scenery. You have to fly, after all. But truthfully, most of the navigation is done by instruments. So you’ll be able to enjoy the nighttime views every now and then.
Night Flying Risks
- Can’t rely on visual cues
Unfortunately, the pilot can’t use techniques they use for day time flying. One of the most obvious is visual cues. During the day, they can see. But in the night, pilots need to rely on their navigation instruments and communication from air traffic control.
While this may seem risky at first, pilots will grow to trust the navigation systems as they gain more experience.
- Less energetic because they have to stay awake all night
It may not seem like a big deal, but going from staying awake all day to staying awake all night is a huge change. Not only do pilots have to fly the plane, but it’s also important to stay alert and aware. Also, just to put passengers at ease, they don’t want to sound lethargic or tired over the intercoms. That wouldn’t be too reassuring as a passenger!
- Weather radar can’t detect clouds – and neither can the pilot because it’s nighttime.
At night, it’s highly likely that pilots wander into thick clouds without knowing it. This isn’t dangerous, but it will result in some additional turbulence. Weather radar detects precipitation, not simply clouds. So that’s why the pilot may unexpectedly wander into some harsher weather.
Do you remember those “we may experience some turbulence over the next 10 – 15 minutes” notices that pilots announce? That’s almost always due to adverse weather conditions (wind, rain, clouds, thunder) that can’t be avoided.
Is it good to fly at night?
Night time flights can be incredibly smooth and pleasant. There’s often less wind so you’ll have less turbulence. Also air traffic control will likely be able to map out a fast route since there’s not a lot of air traffic to avoid at night.
Airports are less busy at night so you’ll probably have a smooth time through airport security and boarding the plane. The same goes for arriving at your destination in the night time.
How do pilots fly planes at night?
Airplanes have several different navigation systems that pilots rely on to fly planes at night. It can get complicated, but in short, airplanes use radar navigation. So they are able to see objects on their radar and avoid them accordingly. They also have weather radar that detects precipitation. Airplanes use satellites to navigate (like GPS navigation for cars) to their destination.
Is turbulence worse at night?
No, turbulence is not worse at night. Barring any extreme weather, winds at night are quite gentle which means next to no turbulence! Night time flights can actually be the most pleasant time to fly. Pilots use weather radar, night or day, to detect harsh weather.
In most cases the worst weather will be avoided before the flight even starts. Air traffic control will map out a route that takes weather conditions into account. This way you can have a smooth and safe flight!
Is flying at night smoother?
Yes, the wind is typically much gentler so you’ll have a smooth ride to your destination. There’s also less air traffic, so you’ll probably get to your destination quickly.
Of course, if there is a storm, you might experience some turbulence. But the pilot will do their part to avoid harsh weather conditions.
Do planes fly lower at night?
No, planes do not fly lower at night. Commercial planes fly at a cruising altitude of around 35,000 feet whether it’s night or day. At night, the air is cooler and therefore more dense. Also, the lower you fly, the more dense the air (and vice versa). So flying at night is like flying lower in the skies. But planes don’t actually fly lower.
To learn more about how high planes fly, check out our complete guide.
How late can a plane take off?
Most major airports take off and land 24/7. This is especially likely at international airports because people fly across the country to places with at times dramatically different time zones. Smaller airports may open and close in the middle of the night to manage their budget or manage the noise level. Small airports are often closer to businesses or residential areas than major airports.
Do planes fly after midnight?
Yes, especially those at major airports or international airports. But the vast majority of flights occur during the day. Planes won’t fly after midnight often simply because there’s not a lot of demand during those times, especially for domestic flights.
In my experience, it’s more common to arrive at your destination in the middle of the night than to leave in the middle of the night. For long international flights, overnight flights are routine.
What is the most dangerous part of flying?
The most dangerous part of flying is landing. According to a Boeing statistical study, landings accounted for over half of fatal accidents from 2010 to 2019. About 12 percent of fatal accidents occur during the takeoff and climb. But these accidents do not happen often. Manufacturers continue to improve on the takeoff and landing technology as well as the navigation systems to ensure people’s safety.
What is the safest time of day to fly?
The safest time of day to fly is the day. Night flying is not dangerous, but day time flying poses less risks. Pilots don’t have to solely rely on their equipment and they can use visual cues to make decisions in real time.
Pilots also don’t have to deal with potential fatigue from changing their circadian rhythms for a night flight. Granted, night flying pilots are trained to stay alert and aware throughout the night.
Do airlines fly 24/7?
Yes, most major airports and international airports fly 24/7. Due to changing time zones, international flights come in throughout the entire day and night. Even though airlines fly 24/7, they’re not busy for the full 24 hours. There are much less flights at night, which is the best time for airports to do any maintenance or upkeep on the planes.
Hopefully we answered all of your questions on flying at night. In short, it’s not dangerous because pilots go through a specific rigorous training to fly at night. They have to renew certification every 90 days to keep flying passengers legally.
If you have a fear of flying or any anxiety toward flying, don’t worry. Trust the pilot’s training and their advanced navigation instruments. Chances are incredibly slim that those fail resulting in a fatal accident.
If you can’t shake the fear of flying, flying during the day is slightly safer because pilots can see clearly.
But hopefully we helped quell some of your anxiety about flying and encouraged you to get ready to travel.
To learn more about airplanes, take a look at the links below.