There was a question on an aviation forum recently that asked when it was appropriate to log night flying time. As much as we would like to say ‘when it’s dark outside’, that is just not the way the FAA works.
To answer the question you should first check to see how the FAA defines ‘night.’ 14 CFR 1.1 – Definitions says that:
Night means the time between the end of evening civil twilight and the beginning of morning civil twilight, as published in the Air Almanac, converted to local time.
If you are logging time to obtain a pilot certificate of some type you can use this definition to determine if you are logging night flight experience. But when is this civil twilight period? The Internet comes to the rescue again… This link: http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php will take you to a website where you can enter the date and your location and be given the correct times for civil twilight.
Knowing that you must maintain separate night landing currency you do a bit more investigation and arrive at 14 CFR 61.57(b) – Recent Flight Experience – Pilot in Command.
There you find:
(b) Night takeoff and landing experience.
(1) Except as provided in paragraph (e) of this section, 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—
(i) That person acted as sole manipulator of the flight controls; and
(ii) The required takeoffs and landings were performed in an aircraft of the same category, class, and type (if a type rating is required).
[paragraph (e) deals with exceptions to this rule which generally do not apply to single-engine pilots flying general aviation aircraft]
So, for logging night landing currency you have a second definition of night flying that refers to sunset and sunrise.
Then, you go out to fly with the intent to get/regain your night landing currency and you find another reference to night flight.
14 CFR 91.209 – Aircraft Lights says:
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 anticollision 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.
Logging for a certificate? – Use the Civil Twilight definition.
Logging for night landing currency? – Use sunset plus an hour and sunrise minus and hour.
Required to turn on your lights? – Use sunset and sunrise.
I was curious about the actual time difference between these definitions. Here is the result of going to that link above to find civil twilight at my location today.
For landing currency this evening you would have to wait until 9:26 pm to log the landings but for certificate night flight experience you could log night time beginning at 8:59 pm and after 8:26 you should have your lights on.
These are the rules. Whether you follow them or not is up to you. You are the person who controls your logbook and the person who determines how to log your flight time. It all comes down to integrity and professionalism. Operate accordingly. It will make a difference in the long run.
Remember, it’s not so much how many hours you have in your log book, it’s how you fly the next hour that really matters.