Emergency Landings at Night

Night flying
••• Night flying. Photo © Sarina Houston

An emergency landing during the day presents a lot of options: Do you land in a field with a headwind, or on a road with a crosswind? Do you land on the treetops or turn back toward the airport? Each situation is dependent upon a list of factors - environmental, aircraft performance, glide distance and altitude - but during the day, a safe landing is probably possible in most cases. 

At night, however, an emergency landing presents challenges that are difficult to remedy.

It's black out there. The lighted areas are populated, so you want to avoid lighted areas. Your glide distance is more difficult to judge because height above the ground and obstacles is more difficult to judge. It's black out there. Do you land on a highway that's lighted so that you can see, endangering travelers in vehicles on the ground? Or do you go for a field, knowing that you won't be able to see anything until your landing light illuminates the trees or the ground below you? 

There's no right or wrong answer, no easy answer, for how to choose an emergency landing spot at night. But there are a few precautions to take, and perhaps a few things to consider. 

Preflight planning is key. 

If you're flying at night, it's imperative that you take the necessary preflight planning steps to prepare for a potential emergency of off-field landing. In many locations, an emergency during the day simply means that you can locate the nearest field and land safely.

At night, it's dark. As part of your preflight planning at night, you should plan your flight over known areas that could serve as an emergency landing point if you were to need one. If you're flying a long cross-country flight at night, you might consider flying along highways or roads, or choosing checkpoints alongside unpopulated fields.

And you might consider keeping checkpoints closer together, within gliding distance of a checkpoint from the altitude that you chose to fly. And while we're talking about altitude, maintaining a higher altitude during night flights will increase your margin of safety. Not only will it give you more time to troubleshoot in the event that something goes wrong, but a higher altitude will allow for a much greater glide distance, potentially allowing you to make it to a nearby airport.


Engine failure at night

If your engine fails, or something else occurs that causes a forced landing at night, there are basically two options: land in a dark area, or go for a lighted area and risk hurting other people and causing damage to other people's structures. There's no right or wrong answer here, and it might come down to your gut instinct. But it's a responsibility of a pilot to avoid causing harm to others, so if you go for a road or a lighted area, make sure you steer clear of people or vehicles. An unlit area, on the other hand, is an unknown at night, which means you won't see what you're landing on until you get a few feet off the ground. Either option has its downsides, and neither is a great option, which is why night flying is a whole new ballgame.

Planning your flight well ahead of time so that you have emergency landing places in mind will help, but otherwise, the best place to land might be hard to find.