How to Plan a VFR Cross Country Flight at Night

Sunset and airplane silhouette
••• Getty/chapin31

Planning a VFR cross-country flight during the day requires a certain amount of preflight planning and preparation. There are a few additional things about night flying that you'll need to consider when planning a night cross-country flight. 

Let's review the daytime cross-country flight planning checklist, but this time with a focus on night operations:

1. Choose your Destination

Choosing a destination at night is a bit different than during the day. First, you'll want to make sure the airport is open, that the FBO or another facility is open if you need it, and that fuel is available at night, if necessary. Second, you'll want to review the airport operations. Is the control tower open at night? Are there runway lights? Are the lights always on or is it a pilot-controlled lighting system? Are certain operations restricted at night, such as specific approaches, or takeoffs from certain runways?

2. Choose Your Route

Navigating at night differs than during the day because your checkpoints will be different, and possibly your altitude. Instead of any old checkpoint, you'll want to choose a well-lit checkpoint that's easy to see at night. A lake, for example, might be easy to spot during the day but will blend in with the dark terrain at nighttime. Instead, you'll want to choose highways and highway intersections, cities or towns, or other airport beacons as checkpoints. Large, well-lit factories or stadiums work well, too.

You'll also want to consider your altitude might differ at night. Keep in mind that hypoxia occurs at lower altitudes at night, so it's recommended that oxygen is available above 5,000 feet MSL at night. But don't forget about terrain. You might actually want to fly at a higher altitude to ensure terrain clearance since it's difficult to see terrain at night.

3. Get a Weather Briefing

Your weather briefing will be mostly the same as during the day, but you'll want to pay special attention to moving weather, such as frontal movements and thunderstorms. These systems are easier to see coming during the day but can sneak up on you at night. Pay close attention to the temperature-dew point spread for your area, as well. A close temperature-dew point spread can mean fog formation, and fog is known to form quickly. If the temperature-dew point spread is within a few degrees of each other, look for the trend. If it's decreasing (getting closer together), you will likely see fog. If it's increasing, you might be in the clear.

4. Choose an Altitude and Cruise Profile

At night, your altitude and cruise profile may not change, but you might consider carrying extra fuel, which can mean extra weight and a change in cruise speed. Fuel management at night is more important than ever.

5. Compute Airspeed, Time and Distance

The normal method of calculating airspeed, time, and distance should remain the same at night as during the day.

6. Familiarize Yourself With the Airport

Especially important at night, airport familiarization will save you time and energy. Night operations at airports vary widely from airport to airport in comparison with daytime operations. Runways might not be usable at night, wildlife might be in the area, and FBOs might be closed, which means you may or may not be able to get fuel. Make sure you read the airport directory notes and call ahead if you need fuel or services. Sometimes special noise abatement procedures are in effect. And if it's Class D airspace, you'll need to know if the tower closes, and whether the lighting is pilot-controlled or not. Plan ahead and get familiar with the airport.

7. Double-Check Your Equipment

During the day, there are certain day VFR items that the FAA requires you have on board the airplane. It's the same for night flying, but with more requirements. Make sure you have the items required by the FAA for night operation, which includes all of the daytime equipment plus extra fuses, a landing light, anti-collision light and position lights, and a source of electrical power. Also, make sure the aircraft's panel lights work, and to have a flashlight or two just in case.

8. Get an Updated Briefing

If you've spent a few hours planning your flight, make sure you get an updated weather briefing before you depart. Weather changes quickly and it's more difficult to see those changes at night.

9. File Your Flight Plan

Filing a flight plan at night is the same as during the day.

10. Be Prepared for the Unexpected

Think about a few unexpected events that might be more challenging to handle at night than during the day, such as a complete electrical failure, an engine fire, or an off-field landing. Consider how you'll handle those emergencies differently than during the day, and plan for the unexpected. Have phone numbers of local FBOs or other pilots on hand in case you need assistance, and always bring food and water!