February 2009 Issue

Night Visual

Even when we’re familiar with the destination, a dark night approach is a bad time to be outside the system.

These pages often discuss the tricks and traps of night flying, stressing along the way the only real difference between doing it after the sun goes down instead of in the daytime is you often can’t see too well. As a result, we have to depend less on the seat of our pants and more on the "system" to get us home. The good news is there’s more "system" than ever before. Infrared vision entered the high-end business jet cockpit a few years ago; it’s already trickling down to turboprops and the occasional well-equipped piston. Meanwhile, innovations like the synthetic vision technology are available on Cirrus Design airplanes equipped with the Perspective avionics suite. Even without all these tools, using data from the IFR system—minimum en route altitudes, approach and departure procedures, for example—will help keep us out of the weeds, also. The bad news is we still make dumb mistakes at night. Some of those mistakes result from known limitations of the human eye and should be easy both to identify and overcome. Other mistakes are more subtle and, in a way, a related to the eye’s shortcomings but primarily result from there being fewer visual cues at night, often when we need them most. Like when landing. Too often, nighttime mistakes take on an "if only" characteristic: If only the pilot had waited to begin that descent, or if only s/he realized the runway lights disappeared because there was a hill between them and the airplane. Throw in the fact most of us are not functioning with peak efficiency at night, that there’s an urgency to get home and get in bed, or that many night flights take place after the pilot or crew have put in a full day of work—whether the work is flying or sitting at a desk doesn’t matter—and really bad things can happen.

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