Night Flying Regulations for the VFR Pilot

Midsection Of Pilots Flying Airplane Against Modern Buildings At Night
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Pilots are sometimes guilty of forgetting some of the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) governing night flight using Visual Flight Rules (VFR). Here's a quick checklist of FARs pilots must be in compliance with to legally fly at night, including pilot currency and aircraft equipment requirements.

Pilot Currency

Pilots are required to maintain night currency—demonstrate their night-flying skills are current—every 90 days to carry passengers at night. Specifically, FAR 61.57(b) states that "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, and—

  1. That person acted as sole manipulator of the flight controls; and
  2.  The required takeoffs and landings were performed in an aircraft of the same category, class, and type (if a type rating is required)."

Aircraft Equipment

All of the equipment required for day VFR flight (for which some pilots use the acronym TOMATO FLAMES as a memorization aid) is required for night VFR flight, plus a few extras (which are shortened to the acronym FLAPS).

Specifically, FAR 91.205 states that "for VFR flight at night, the following instruments and equipment are required:

  1. Instruments and equipment specified in paragraph (b) of this section.
  2. Approved position lights.
  3. An approved aviation red or aviation white anticollision light system on all U.S.-registered civil aircraft.
  4. If the aircraft is operated for hire, one electric landing light.
  5. An adequate source of electrical energy for all installed electrical and radio equipment.
  6. One spare set of fuses, or three spare fuses of each kind required, that are accessible to the pilot in flight.

The FLAPS acronym goes like this:

  • F: Fuses
  • L: Landing light
  • A: Anticollision lights
  • P: Position lights
  • S: Source of electrical energy

The items are not in the same order as in the regulation.

Paragraph (b) of that section covers the necessary daytime flight equipment: It states that "for VFR flight during the day, the following instruments and equipment are required:

  1. Airspeed indicator.
  2. Altimeter.
  3. Magnetic direction indicator.
  4. Tachometer for each engine.
  5. Oil pressure gauge for each engine using pressure system.
  6. Temperature gauge for each liquid-cooled engine.
  7. Oil temperature gauge for each air-cooled engine.
  8. Manifold pressure gauge for each altitude engine.
  9. Fuel gauge indicating the quantity of fuel in each tank.
  10. Landing gear position indicator, if the aircraft has retractable landing gear.
  11. For small civil airplanes certificated after March 11, 1996, in accordance with part 23 of this chapter, an approved aviation red or aviation white anticollision light system. In the event of failure of any light of the anticollision light system, operation of the aircraft may continue to a location where repairs or replacement can be made.
  12. If the aircraft is operated for hire over water and beyond power-off gliding distance from shore, approved flotation gear readily available to each occupant and, unless the aircraft is operating under part 121 of this subchapter, at least one pyrotechnic signaling device. As used in this section, “shore” means that area of the land adjacent to the water which is above the high water mark and excludes land areas that are intermittently underwater.
  13. An approved safety belt with an approved metal-to-metal latching device, or other approved restraint system for each occupant 2 years of age or older.
  14. For small civil airplanes manufactured after July 18, 1978, an approved shoulder harness or restraint system for each front seat. For small civil airplanes manufactured after December 12, 1986, an approved shoulder harness or restraint system for all seats. Shoulder harnesses installed at flight crew stations must permit the flight crew member, when seated and with the safety belt and shoulder harness fastened, to perform all functions necessary for flight operations. For purposes of this paragraph—(i) The date of manufacture of an airplane is the date the inspection acceptance records reflect that the airplane is complete and meets the FAA-approved type design data; and (ii) A front seat is a seat located at a flight crew member station or any seat located alongside such a seat.
  15. An emergency locator transmitter, if required by § 91.207.
  16. [Reserved]
  17. For rotorcraft manufactured after September 16, 1992, a shoulder harness for each seat that meets the requirements of § 27.2 or § 29.2 of this chapter in effect on September 16, 1991.

"[Reserved]" indicates that that section has been removed from the regulation but the section number is being kept as a placeholder for a modified section that may be inserted at a later time.

Just as with FLAPS, the TOMATO FLAMES acronym puts the equipment in a different order than in the FAR:

  • T: Tachometer
  • O: Oil pressure gauge
  • M: Manifold pressure gauge for each atmosphere engine
  • A: Airspeed indicator
  • T: Temperature gauge for each liquid-cooled engine
  • O: Oil temperature gauge
  • F: Fuel level gauge
  • L: Landing gear position indicator
  • A: Altimeter
  • M: Magnetic heading indicator
  • E: Emergency locator transmitter (ELT)
  • S: Seat belts

A TOMATO FLAMES is actually a more accurate acronym because it includes a third A for the anticollision lights that are required for daytime flight if the pilot is flying an aircraft that was certified as airworthy after March 11, 1996.

Anticollision Lights

The anticollision light system is always required for night flying. It generally consists of flashing red beacon lights and white strobe lights.

The beacon lights are located in the middle of the fuselage, one on the top and one on the bottom. Pilots turn them on when on the ground to indicate to the ground crew that they're about to turn on the engine(s), and they turn them off after they've turned off the engine(s).

There are typically two white strobe lights at the tip of each wing and one on the tail. Pilots turn them on when approaching the runway and turn them off when they've left the runway.

Pilots also turn off strobe lights in cloudy or foggy conditions because otherwise the lights will reflect back at them, making it difficult to see.

Position Lights

A plane has three position lights (also known as navigation lights) that enable anyone observing the plane at night to tell which direction it's headed in. A red position light is on the left-wing (to the left of the forward-facing pilot), a green position light is on the right-wing, and a white position light is as far toward the back of the plane as possible, which typically means on the rear of the tail.

Landing Light

A landing light is a high-intensity light that illuminates the runway or ground during takeoffs and landings.

Aircraft Fuel Reserves

For night flying, pilots must have at least 45 minutes' worth of fuel more than they expect to need to arrive at their destination. FAR 91.151(2) states that "no person may begin a flight in an airplane under VFR conditions unless (considering wind and forecast weather conditions) there is enough fuel to fly to the first point of intended landing and, assuming normal cruising speed—

  1. During the day, to fly after that for at least 30 minutes; or
  2. At night, to fly after that for at least 45 minutes."

Aircraft Light Usage

Pilots must use the aircraft's position, anchor, and anticollision lights at night, except under specific circumstances.

FAR 91.209 states that "no person may, (a) During the period from sunset to sunrise (or, in Alaska, during the period a prominent unlighted object cannot be seen from a distance of 3 statute miles or the sun is more than 6 degrees below the horizon)⁠—

  1. Operate an aircraft unless it has lighted position lights;
  2. Park or move an aircraft in, or in dangerous proximity to, a night flight operations area of an airport unless the aircraft—(i) Is clearly illuminated; (ii) Has lighted position lights; or (iii) Is in an area that is marked by obstruction lights;
  3. Anchor an aircraft unless the aircraft⁠—(i) Has lighted anchor lights; or (ii) Is in an area where anchor lights are not required on vessels; or

(b) Operate an aircraft that is equipped with an anticollision light system, unless it has lighted anti-collision lights. However, the anticollision lights need not be lighted when the pilot-in-command determines that, because of operating conditions, it would be in the interest of safety to turn the lights off."

Anchor lights are only for aircraft, such as seaplanes, that land in water.

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