Night Flight In A Challenger
By: Advisory Committee


The Challenger BTT 101 site committee acknowledges the fact that, on occasion, the Challenger has been (and continues to be) flown at night. However, we feel that this endeavor should not be undertaken without the proper pilot training and aircraft equipment along with having the appropriate certificates and documents in place. Remember things can turn very nasty very quickly in the air at night. Therefore we feel it imperative to point out to all who entertain trying night flight, the all-to-often tragic outcome in flying at night with deficiencies in either pilot ability or experience or aircraft compliance with FAA requirements.

The Joy:

A night flight requires another level of preparedness and planning. Once done, flying at night can be one of the most exciting, enjoyable, and challenging experiences. There is definitely no such thing as a boring night flight. A flight into the night can really be a fascinating experience. From 1,500 feet a flight over the snow-covered terrain is something to behold on a moonlit night. Rivers, waterways, and coastlines are a magnificent sight. The lights of civilization are likewise beautiful. On a clear cloudless night, visibility is fantastic and you can see lighted cities far farther away than on the best of days; 50 -100 miles over flat lands is no problem at all. Other air traffic is easier to see and track. Radio reception even seems better. All of this can put an ”other world” feeling to such a flight. Life is good!

The Awakening:

Exciting and good, yes, but it can also be quite deadly. If the flight continues into a cloudy or overcast sky or maybe across a large body of water, the horizon may become non-existent. Without the horizon, the flight suddenly turns into an instrument-reference-only flight and no longer VFR. Without a bright moon and ground lights, even a clear night flight can make you very uncomfortable.

The ground below can simply lose all definition except for the lights along streets, homes, cities, and possibly some lit areas around farms, etc. It is easy to get yourself lost if you can't see familiar objects on the ground or if you have no obvious direction indicator like the sun.

Landings on an unlit airport runway can be more than exciting. If an off-airport night landing becomes necessary, trust us that streetlights and such will provide very little illumination to any landing site. All you may see is the darkest, deepest, blackest hole you can possibly imagine, and without landing lights, you most likely won't have a clue as to how high above the ground your wheels are in the moments prior to touchdown. It can be the most terrorizing thing in a pilot's career, second only to possibly an in-flight fire or catastrophic structural failure. Absolutely ZERO fun!

The Challenger Realities:

The Challenger is a very basic airplane; even the 550 pounders some builders are putting together these days do not make an IFR aircraft no matter what instruments are installed. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is its wing loading. At 5 - 6.5 pounds per square foot, the airplane is just a few notches above being a napkin in the wind or bumpy air. If you think flying with the doors on requires lots of work on a bumpy day, try controlling a Challenger on a dark or overcast night with no visible horizon. Challenger pilots should not want to go there. IFR flight is something they really, really do not want to do.

But if a pilot is not mindful of the weather, cloud cover, amount of moonlight, or the terrain over which they are flying, a night flight may very quickly turn into an IFR flight. In that event, that pilot is in real trouble and may not survive. This situation is about as good a formula as we know for a disaster or a very bad ending to say the least. Even a trained instrument pilot at the controls can find themselves in an uncomfortable position in a Challenger under these conditions.

A gyroscopic artificial horizon indicator is "the main instrument" used to maintain control of an aircraft in instrument conditions. A gyroscopic "needle and ball" turn indicator is helpful and will permit control of the aircraft to be retained by a skillful pilot in the event of a failure of the artificial horizon. Without these instruments, control of the aircraft in a situation where outside visual reference is lost is next to impossible.

Further, merely having the artificial horizon and turn indicator on your panel is not enough; instrument flight training is required for their effective use. Gyro-driven instruments can and do tumble during some unusual attitudes, such as a wingover, and may be useless for reference for a considerable length of time thereafter until they restabilize themselves.

In the real world the average Challenger pilot probably does not fly “planned” IFR or night VFR flights. He is more likely to be caught just a little shy of his destination with night rapidly approaching. He may still be legal as long as it's not more that 30 minutes past the official sunset time posted for that locale and day of the year. Legal or not, when the sky begins to get dark it is really difficult to see adequate ground details to comfortably complete a safe landing. Landings of this sort really pump the adrenalin.

(The official sunset is not necessarily the time the sun drops below the horizon. Check your daily paper or GPS for the sunset time.)

When on early morning or dusk flights, be aware that when mist or thin ground fog is lying close to the ground and you are descending and approaching the ground for a landing, forward visibility most likely will decrease. When higher, you tend to look more straight down and therefore see the ground through less fog or thickness of mist. Down lower, you will automatically look more forward or horizontal and through much more of the stuff and your view ahead will leave lots to be desired.

Don't let yourself get caught is this situation. It's like suddenly driving a car into ground fog except you are not blinded as quickly. The end result will be the same if your decent continues. It will just take a couple of seconds longer.

If a pilot of relatively limited experience is planning a night VFR flight, it should only be attempted in excellent night VFR conditions. These conditions include the following:

  1. The ground must be well defined by moonlight or ground lights.
  2. The horizon must be plainly visible throughout the flight.
  3. Smooth air should be reported along the entire route.
  4. Plan on having a minimum of 45 minutes of reserve fuel.
  5. Plan on having a red-lensed flashlight on board. It's really hard to navigate if you can't see the map, instruments, and the GPS.
  6. Make sure you will have a well-lighted runway to land on.

Also check the FAA requirements stated below.

This article does not attempt to address any rules that might apply if you have declared the airplane to be an ultralight trainer, a motor glider, or something else. In those cases you presumably did the proper research into the necessary aircraft requirements necessary to register it that way and the pilot requirements needed to fly it under that registry.

The following information contains the results of the committee's research into night flying FAR requirements. The information presented is for those operating under United States FAA rules. Pilots in other countries may have different rules to operate by.

All Challenger aircraft, either single or two placed, fall under the FAA category of amateur built aircraft and as such must be registered as an experimental aircraft and carry an N-number. Only rarely do Challengers meet the requirements of FAA part 103 for Ultralights. Therefore, in almost every case, their pilots must have a current FAA pilot license along with a current medical to fly as pilot in command in them. A sport pilot license allows the use of a current drivers license as a medical certificate. A current drivers license can also be used in lieu of a current medical for recreational, private, or higher licensed pilots who are operating under the privileges of a sport pilot license as long as they have never been refused a medical by the FAA.

Only Private or higher licensed pilots with current medicals and BFR's are permitted to fly at night. The Recreational Pilot License allows only day VFR, unless the holder has received additional instruction in night VFR flying and has a log book sign off. A Sport Pilot license does not allow night flying! A higher licensed pilot operating as a Sport Pilot is likewise not allowed to fly at night.

To make this as clear as we can: Private and higher licensed pilots operating as a Sport Pilot, under the Sport Pilot rules, are not allowed to fly at night under these rules. The pilot license must not have any statement on it that limits it to “Day VFR Only”.

There are no currency requirements for an otherwise qualified pilot that wants to take a night VFR flight. However, if that pilot wants to take a passenger along with them, he or she must have logged at least 3 takeoffs and landings, at night, to a full stop, within the previous 90 days.

The airplane itself must also carry certain minimum equipment for “Night VFR” flight. Further, if the original operating limitations section of the aircraft airworthiness certificate specified “Day VFR Only”, you will need another inspection in order to get that restriction removed.

In doing the research, we noted that there is no specific requirement for either landing lights or instrument lights for night flying in an experimental aircraft, although both of these would be highly recommended for safety reasons. In the name of safety, some sort of red light directed at the instrument panel would be a good idea in order to read the instruments without diminishing your night vision. It would also be a good idea, though not strictly required, to have some current “hood instrument flying time” logged in your Challenger just in case you get into a situation in which you can't see the horizon.

The FAA requirements:

There are aircraft as well as pilot requirements for night VFR flying. Virtually all GA aircraft flying at night must be registered and N-numbered and their pilots must have an approved FAA license to operate them.

The minimum PILOT requirements for night VFR flight per FAR's, Part 61:

  • At least 3 hours of night flight training.
  • To carry a passenger, at least 3 night landings to a full stop, flown in same type aircraft, logged in the last 90 days.
  • At least 4 hours of logged instrument or computer simulated instrument flying instruction.

After Challenger pilots have satisfied the minimum requirements, their airplane must be signed off for “night VFR” as well. Check your Airworthiness certificate's operating limitations. Do they include any authorization for “night VFR” following the initial flight-testing phase? If no authorization is present, no night flying is allowed in that airplane!

The minimum AIRCRAFT equipment requirements for “night VFR” include the following, according to FAR, Part 91.205.

Night VFR:

  • Airspeed indicator
  • Altimeter
  • Compass
  • Tachometer
  • Fuel gauge
  • Engine instruments specific to engine type (coolant temp, oil press etc.)
  • Approved position lights, red, green, white
  • Approved red or white anti-collision lights
  • Spare set of fuses accessible to the pilot in flight
  • Although not equipment, a 45-minute fuel reserve at destination

For those wanting to do more research into the pilot and experimental aircraft requirements we suggest checking into the following:


Or review the various current FARS, especially Part 61 and Part 91:

FAA Federal Aviation Regulations (FARS Part 91)

Another great source of information is the EAA. A call or visit there can usually get your questions answered.