Hello Darkness My Old Friend

At one time, there was a belief among some aviators that there is “no lift” at night, therefore night flight was not possible. Clearly this is not true, and is regarded as a joke among flyers, but it does reflect an unease among many about flying in the dark.

From takeoff to landing night flight is a very different world.

Even the takeoff is dramatically different as the afterburners kick in and there are concentric rings of light along the cone of fire from the rear of the aircraft.

Once airborne there is also a seeming “cloak of invisibility” around the fighter. The darkness hides you and somehow gives you a sense of security that is not there in the light. Now granted, this really is a false sense of security as you are clearly visible on radar and anti-aircraft SAM systems. Still it feels more calm. There is a stealthiness to this not felt in the day. Perhaps there is a feeling of invincibility not present in the bright light of day. (This feeling also manifested itself when we turned off the SAM warning indicators as they had become very annoying with their constant beeping – out of sight out of mind perhaps.) Such was the feeling at night, if you couldn’t see it how could it hurt you.

If the night is clear, above you is an amazing show of stars seldom seen on the ground anymore. Instruments become even more important as the horizon vanishes and you are forced to leave behind the normal visual clues that flyers rely on. This really can be dangerous as many an inexperienced flyer has wrongly thought he was flying straight and level, but in actuality was descending into a mountain range ahead. The artificial horizon is your most important aid in night flying and not to be ignored at your own peril.

During the Vietnam War, there were squadrons that only flew at night because of the very different conditions. It was hard to transition back and forth, and much safer to fly either at night or in the day.

One of the best accounts of flying at night was written by Richard Bach, himself a pilot, and author of “Stranger to the Ground.” He is better remembered for his 1970s novel “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” but his account of flying alone off the coast of Europe at night in the 1950s is a classic. Outside there is only a dark landscape below, punctuated with the occasional bright lights of a city, and little else. The night flyer is a ghostly presence, gliding over the darkened world below.

Night flight is more introspective. The mind and skills are shrunk to the cockpit only, the red glow of the instruments dominate the world of the night flyer. Gone are the distractions of clouds, landscape, and all the highlights of the day.

If the eagle is the swooping and soaring king of the day, the bat represents the flyer of the night.

While it is indeed great fun to be the eagle, personally I loved to be the bat. Silent but deadly, swooping in for the kill, and then gone into the darkness.

About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in 13 TFS, 43 TFS, American History, F-4 Phantom II, F4 Phantom II, F4 PhantomII, Fighter Aircraft, Fighter pilot lingo, Vietnam War and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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