Saturday, July 31, 2010

It Was Like Flying Into A Black Hole

Night flight is not everyone’s cup of tea, in fact, some pilots dread it. I can certainly understand why particularly in actual IMC conditions in a single engine plane. But if the conditions are right, good VFR, stars above, maybe a moon, it can be just beautiful. In the distance, airport beacons beam their greeting to the sometimes weary traveler. The twinkle of light from houses, and the stream of headlights appearing as a swarm of bees far below on otherwise unseen roads, all help make up this almost mystical experience. Another thing I miss is the friendly glow of all the cockpit instruments, reassuring at a time of relative isolation. So as long as the machinery keeps on purring, there is nothing particular to worry about. Or is there?

Well, for one, landing at night can be tricky if one doesn’t recognize certain differences from daytime flight. Depth perception is limited and can be misleading to the inexperienced pilot. For example, just before touching down for a landing, during the day one looks straight ahead judging height and distance without much difficulty. At night, with the loss of depth perception, one must use their peripheral vision as a judge of height above the runway. If you try and just stare at what appears to be the runway you may be in for a real bounce. By using peripheral vision as well as straight ahead vision for alignment, judgment of height is much improved. To help the pilot judge the correct approach angle on final, VASI (visual approach slope lights) are a big help. Strategically placed at the end of the runway, they appear red if too low, or white if too high. If one is on the 3 degree slope, the light is a mixture of red and white. In other words, a VFR glideslope. Of course there should be threshold lights, and depending on the size of the field, many others as well. If the field is uncontrolled, frequently one can set the brightness of the lighting system by clicking the unicom frequency appropriately.

I remember one flight into a small airport in southern Vermont, one very dark, moonless night. It was like flying into a black hole. Navigating to the airport was easy using VOR aids. The problem was that there were virtually no surrounding lights other than a couple of red beacons on towers on surrounding hills. Runway lights were minimal, on one side of the runway only. Thank goodness for the VASI. I would have made an ILS approach, except there wasn’t one available. Anyhow, I landed safely, and was glad when I reached the terminal area and could shut down the engines.

So, night owl or not. Make sure your eyes are night adapted, keep lighting low in the cockpit and enjoy the darkness.

No comments:

Post a Comment