Night Mission Restriction for VFR-Only Pilots

Angel Flight West – Night mission restriction for VFR-only pilots

Rich Pickett

July 2020

I’ve always enjoyed night flying from my first evening flight 42 years ago as a student pilot to the present. One of the first aspects of night flight my instructor taught me were the additional risks with these flights.   The AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s Nall report states the fatal VFR accident rate doubles after nightfall. The risk of spatial disorientation dramatically increases due to factors such as: lack of natural horizon, sparse ground lighting, inability to see clouds or fog, etc. For IFR-rated pilots the accident rate at night has been reported as low as half that of VFR-rated pilots.

One of our hallmarks at Angel Flight West is to promote a safe-flying experience for our wonderful volunteer pilots and their passengers.   At Angel Flight West, we have been studying the topic of patient-carrying night flights with VFR-rated pilots for over a year. This has been a collaborative effort involving the AFW Safety Committee, AFW staff, Jim Dell (our first Safety Officer), Wing Leaders, and Wing Safety Officers. The increased risk of these flights is compelling.

Based upon our extensive work, the AFW Board of Directors in February 2020 approved a mission policy addition that allows for night mission flights (with patients) only with pilots that possess an instrument-rating or its equivalent, the Airline Transport Pilot certificate, and meet FAA IFR currency requirements. The FAA has several definitions of ‘night’, for our purposes FAR 61.57(b) is applicable. Under FAR 61.57(b) night begins one hour after sunset and ends one hour before sunrise.

While the increase risk is present even without passengers, this policy does not restrict VFR-rated pilots from flying home without AFW patients at night, or flying before the start of daytime to pick up patients.

We understand that this could have implications for our patients, pilots, Earth Angels, medical providers, and of course our staff. We did not make this decision lightly and realize that during some times of the year it may have more impact than at other times.

There may be some instances when, even with the best advanced planning, a mission may inadvertently result in a situation that results in a potential patient-carrying flight at night. In these situations, we don't want the pilot or patient to be concerned. The AFW Operations staff will assist the patient in obtaining overnight lodging, or other alternative assistance to ensure they are comfortable.

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