Sitting in the back of an aircraft as it takes off at night leads to some beautiful illuminated scenery until the inky black night surrounds the aircraft in its cloak. So if the passengers see nothing out of the windows, how do the pilots see when flying at night?
For aircraft at high altitudes, air traffic controllers and radar become the pilot’s eyes at night. For low altitude flights; city lights, night vision goggles & landing lights help the pilots to see outside of their cockpit. Cockpit instrumentation is used to fly at all other times.
Flights are split up into two categories: IFR & VFR, and depending on which category the pilot is flying under, will dictate whether they need to see out of the aircraft windows or not. This might seem a little unnerving to many of you but it is a structured process that happens all over the world on a daily basis.
Let’s take a look at how pilots see at night and if they even need to see at all!
How Do Pilots See At Night Under IFR?
Firstly, IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules and it means that pilots do not need to be able to see the ground or horizon to pilot an aircraft. They fly and navigate using cockpit instrumentation and guidance from air traffic control and their radar surveillance systems.
Most aircraft over 20 seats will always be flying under IFR rules and the pilots do not need to see outside, mainly because there will be nothing to see once they fly into the clouds or into the night.
This is how the entire airline world operates! As an aircraft takes off, the pilot/s use the aircraft landing lights and runway lighting system to guide them down the runway. Once airborne, the pilot/s call the departure controller and confirm they see the aircraft on their radar screen.
From that point on the pilot’s eyes will be inside the aircraft monitoring the instrumentation and managing the aircraft to fly the routing as required by the GPS or by following instructions from the air traffic controller.
It is now the air traffic controllers’ job to ensure aircraft remain clear from one another for the entire duration of the flight and because of this, pilots do not need to see out of the window, besides, at 35,000ft at night, there is nothing to see!
Once the aircraft starts its approach to land, the pilots will be looking for the airport’s approach lighting system that will help them identify and guide them to the start of the runway. These approach lighting systems are specially designed to stand out from surrounding city light pollution and help guide pilots down safely as they begin to reach the end of the instrument approach.
Once the pilot has the runway in sight, powerful landing lights mounted on the aircraft will help to illuminate the runway to ensure it is clear and help with depth perception to allow for a smooth touchdown by the pilot.
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How Do Pilots See At Night Under VFR?
VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules and as you may have guessed, it requires the pilot to fly with visual reference to the earth’s surface and/or horizon at all times. Because of this, pilots need to be able to see at night to safely pilot an aircraft and they will have very little help from air traffic control once away from the airport and outside its controlled airspace.
The most common types of aircraft that fly VFR at night are as follows:
- Privately owned small aircraft
- Tour flights
- Law enforcement
- Traffic & news aircraft
- Training aircraft
- Wildfire aircraft
With VFR flights having a lot more flexibility in where they can go and what they can do the responsibility to remain safe and see is solely on the pilot of each aircraft. Air traffic control’s primary concern is their IFR aircraft and once a pilot is away from their area of control, VFR pilots are free to go on their merry way and do as they please, providing they follow the FAA’s rules and regulations!
To help VFR pilots see at night there are several things, equipment, and systems available that can really improve pilot vision and increase safety:
- Preparing the Pilots Vision
- Aircraft Lighting
- City Lights
- Night Vision Goggles
- Synthetic Vision Systems
Preparing Pilot Vision For Night Flights
Any pilot wishing to fly at night needs to prepare their vision to allow them to see with the most clarity. Just like walking out of a dark building into bright sunlight, our eyes need time to adjust from bright environments like offices and hangers to the dark sky.
I still remember doing this for my first ever night flight during my flight training. My instructor and I used our flashlights to give the aircraft a preflight inspection and get all the paperwork done, then we grabbed a coffee and went and sat out by the aircraft to drink our coffee and stare up at the stars.
It takes roughly 30 minutes for the human eye to fully acclimatize to darkness and the time it took to drink our coffee worked perfectly!
Once in the aircraft, pilots will adjust the cockpit lighting to the minimum intensity needed, they will use red lights in the cockpit as white light destroys night vision and the pilots will avoid, where possible, looking at the bright runway and airport lights when taxiing and taking off.
Taking off at night in a small aircraft is an incredible experience and you see so much more than through the small windows of an airliner!
I highly recommend everyone take a night flight in a small aircraft at some point in their life!
Aircraft Lights Required For Night Flights
To legally fly VFR at night the FAA mandates under 14CFR 91.205(c) that all aircraft be equipped with the following working lights:
- Red or White Flashing Anti-Collision Light
- Position Lights
The anti-collision light really helps find an aircraft flying around an illuminated city. By using their peripheral vision, pilots can look for this moving strobe light to help pinpoint other aircraft – It works really well!
The position lights are very helpful in identifying in which direction other aircraft are flying. Every aircraft’s position light layouts are the same:
Depending on the color/s of light a pilot sees, they can quickly ascertain if the other aircraft is coming towards them or is on a merging course. Once a pilot has worked out the direction of flight of the other aircraft they can maneuver their aircraft to maintain separation.
City Lights Help Pilots See At Night
The amount of light pollution that is given off by even the smallest towns and cities is phenomenal. For pilots flying around over a city is easy to fly an aircraft safely and navigate.
When flying over a city, pilots can easily discern which way is upright and by using the roads, unique buildings, and monuments, finding their way around is a breeze. However, pilots flying around a city usually means more aircraft in the same area, this is why knowing their own position at all times, keeping a good lookout for other aircraft lights, and maintaining good communication with air traffic control is a must to keeping everyone safe.
Flying around a city at night is just as easy as flying during the day. The big issue comes when pilots begin to fly out into the remote parts of the country where there are no lights on the ground.
Using Night Vision Goggles To Fly At Night
When flying in the darkest, remote parts of the country pilots have two options:
- Fly using their instruments only, or
- Use Night Vision Goggles
For the pilots who just cruise around the skies in their private planes and helicopters, night vision goggles (NVG’s) are just out of their reach in terms of price and acquisition, so they must fly with reference to their instruments.
Night vision goggles are exactly what they sound like. They are a pair of small binocular-type devices that fit on a pilot’s helmet. They take in the natural illumination of the night and amplify it to render a real-time image in each eyepiece so that the pilot can see no matter which way they move their head.
For pilots flying professionally like law enforcement and medevac helicopters, NVG’s are a complete game changer! I have flown in remote parts of the country at night without them and you will see in the video below what a difference they make! – Try and spot the stranded hikers!
The latest generation of NVG’s now use white phosphor lenses instead of green, and have even greater incredible clarity and contrast to allow pilots to easily see at night!
Using Enhanced Vision To Fly At Night
Very similar to night vision goggles, except this vision system is permanently fitted into the aircraft itself and uses an infrared camera to peer into the blackness. The real-time image is displayed on pilot display screens or even into Heads-Up Displays (HUD).
Pioneered by Gulfstream Aerospace, they installed this system as standard on its G550 series aircraft since 2003 then later models, including the G450 & G650. This is a great system for airplanes that only need it looking forward toward the runway, whereas the NVG’s work better for pilots who need to look all around when landing.
This video below shows the comparison as a Gulfstream airplane lands in Aspen, CO:
For pilots needing to see at night, it really depends on the kind of flight they are doing. For airlines, once the aircraft has raised its landing gear the need to see is not required again until the pilots are on final approach for landing.
For VFR pilots, the ability to see is needed, and by preparing their eyes and flying over well-lit areas any pilot can fly just fine. The problems come when the city lights disappear and the pilot is met with the ink-black sky.
Flying by sole reference to instruments or using an assisted vision system is the only way to safely pilot an aircraft, especially when coming into land.
I have hundreds of hours flying at night and it’s a great experience, but punching off into the darkness and flying by sole reference to instruments takes a while to build confidence in your own abilities and that of the aircraft!
If you feel like trying out a set of assisted vision binoculars for a very reasonable price, this set on Amazon.com is getting great reviews from over 700 buyers. At just over $100 they open up the nighttime world and are capturing great images and inspiring many people to take them everywhere!
Great for camping and hunting trips or even passing to the kids in the back of the car on those long road trips. I obviously cannot recommend these for flying, but for adding some fun to an evening under the stars they are going to go on my next birthday list too!
You can find them Here at Amazon.com
If you found this article interesting and would like to keep reading, I highly recommend the following articles from my blog:
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- Can Pilots Wear Glasses? Is This a Dream Destroyer?
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- Why Do Fighter Pilots Pass Out? Or Can They Prevent It?