Chapter 10 Night Operations

Night Vision
Night Illusions
Pilot Equipment
Airplane Equipment and Lighting
Airport and Navigation Lighting Aids
Preparation and Preflight
Starting, Taxiing, and Runup
Takeoff and Climb
Orientation and Navigation
Approaches and Landings
Night Emergencies
Table of Contents


In addition to night vision limitations, pilots should be aware that night illusions could cause confusion and concerns during night flying. The following discussion covers some of the common situations that cause illusions associated with night flying.

On a clear night, distant stationary lights can be mistaken for stars or other aircraft. Even the northern lights can confuse a pilot and indicate a false horizon. Certain geometrical patterns of ground lights, such as a freeway, runway, approach, or even lights on a moving train can cause confusion. Dark nights tend to eliminate reference to a visual horizon. As a result, pilots need to rely less on outside references at night and more on flight and navigation instruments.

Visual autokinesis can occur when a pilot stares at a single light source for several seconds on a dark night. The result is that the light will appear to be moving. The autokinesis effect will not occur if the pilot expands the visual field. It is a good procedure not to become fixed on one source of light.

Distractions and problems can result from a flickering light in the cockpit, anticollision light, strobe lights, or other aircraft lights and can cause flicker vertigo. If continuous, the possible physical reactions can be nausea, dizziness, grogginess, unconsciousness, headaches, or confusion. The pilot should try to eliminate any light source causing blinking or flickering problems in the cockpit.

A black-hole approach occurs when the landing is made from over water or non-lighted terrain where the runway lights are the only source of light. Without peripheral visual cues to help, pilots will have trouble orientating themselves relative to Earth. The runway can seem out of position (downsloping or upsloping) and in the worse case, results in landing short of the runway. If an electronic glide slope or visual approach slope indicator (VASI) is available, it should be used. If navigation aids (NAVAIDs) are unavailable, careful attention should be given to using the flight instruments to assist in maintaining orientation and a normal approach. If at any time the pilot is unsure of his or her position or attitude, a go-around should be executed.

Bright runway and approach lighting systems, especially where few lights illuminate the surrounding terrain, may create the illusion of less distance to the runway. In this situation, the tendency is to fly a higher approach. Also, when flying over terrain with only a few lights, it will make the runway recede or appear farther away. With this situation, the tendency is common to fly a lower-than-normal approach. If the runway has a city in the distance on higher terrain, the tendency will be to fly a lower-than-normal approach. A good review of the airfield layout and boundaries before initiating any approach will help the pilot maintain a safe approach angle.

Illusions created by runway lights result in a variety of problems. Bright lights or bold colors advance the runway, making it appear closer.

Night landings are further complicated by the difficulty of judging distance and the possibility of confusing approach and runway lights. For example, when a double row of approach lights joins the boundary lights of the runway, there can be confusion where the approach lights terminate and runway lights begin. Under certain conditions, approach lights can make the aircraft seem higher in a turn to final, than when its wings are level.

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