Landing at Night

Pilots · 4 min read · Jul 01, 2022
Landing at Night

The landing could be considered the most critical stage of any flight, and night landings can make the maneuver even more complex.

Fortunately, modern aircraft and runways are well prepared to help the pilot complete this challenging task.

If you want to learn how pilots are capable of completing night landings, and how aircraft and runways help them do it, we invite you to keep reading.

Is landing at night hard?

We mentioned landing is a complex and challenging task but is it really so hard to do it at night?

Landing can be an extremely challenging activity for either a young private pilot, but also for the most seasoned airline pilot. Yet, landing in the evenings is actually more difficult. With significantly less visual inputs, it is important to rely heavily on instruments and airport lighting when a flight takes place. Instruments and runway lights are two of the ways aircraft and runways help pilots complete their landings even in the darkest nights.

For example, aircraft come with a set of landing lights that help pilots identify the runway below them. However, landing lights are useful only in a short range of good visibility, so other aids are required in case of lower visibility.

Also, pilots should be able to complete the maneuver even without a landing light. In fact, some student pilots may struggle to perform a proper approach while using a landing light, but they can improve their performance significantly with the landing light being off. Some experts believe this is because without the landing light, their eyes naturally move down the runway and they take in a wider picture.

An aircraft with landing lights on making a landing at night on an illuminated runway.

How do you land at night?

These type of landings take more than just having good landing lights installed on the aircraft. More visual cues are needed.

In general, when flying at night use VASI or PAPI and any available navigation aid, such as runway lights or approach lights, to keep you in an accurate descent.

Let’s see what VASI and PAPI are, and some of the other navigation aids available for pilots to complete this type of landing.

What is VASI?

VASI stands for Visual Approach Slope Indicator. A visual approach slope indicator system is a system consisting of four light units situated on the left side of the runway in the form of two wing bars referred to as the upwind and downwind wing bars.

What is PAPI?

PAPI stands for Precision Approach Path Indicators, and it is a system that primarily assists the pilot by providing visual glide slope guidance in a non-precision approach environment. These two systems (VASI and PAPI) have an effective visual range of at least 3 miles during the day and up to 20 miles at night.

Runway lights

Runway lights are usually visual cues that help the pilot perform a normal approach under dark and low visibility conditions. These lights must be identified by the pilot as early as possible to prepare for approach and landing.

There are different types of runway lights. However, the ones the pilot should identify first include the runway threshold and runway edge lights. These two groups of lights are essential to fly a traffic pattern of proper size and direction.

Approach lights

An approach lighting system is a lighting system installed on the approach end of an airport runway and consisting of a series of lightbars, strobe lights, or a combination of the two that extends outward from the runway end.

This system provides the basic means to transition from instrument flight to visual flight for landing, according to the FAA.

A small personal aircraft has completed a landing at night and is being serviced by airport staff by the runway.

Illusions during night landings

Apart from the reduced visibility, the main difficulty of performing landings during the night is the fact that there are certain illusions that make pilots lose their visual references, thus making it difficult to take the proper traffic pattern and resulting in a higher or lower than normal approach.

Here are some of the most common illusions.

Black-hole approach

This happens when the airport has few to no ground features around it. In the middle of the darkness, the airport may look like an island fully lit, and it will be easy to identify. However, not having visual references around it makes it difficult to get the right approach. The pilot may feel as if the aircraft is higher than it actually is, leading to a lower than normal approach.

Ground lighting illusions

Bright runway and approach lights may make the runway appear closer, resulting in a higher approach. This is why non-towered airfields, or those having closed their tower, use systems that allow pilots to set the intensity of the lights by using the clicks of their mic. High intensity is good for identifying the runway, but it may be wise to reduce it to medium intensity, or even lower when approaching it. Areas with few lights on the ground may lead to a lower approach.

Runway width illusion

A pilot may perceive a narrow runway as farther away and fly a lower approach—or, conversely, come in too high to a wider than a normal runway.

Slope illusions

Up-sloping runways give the impression that the airplane is higher than it is; down-sloping runways have the opposite effect.

Atmospheric illusions

Haze or rain on the windscreen may make the pilot think they are higher or farther from the runway.

An aircraft with landing lights on is landing at night on a runway.

Final words about landing at night

As you can see, landing is generally challenging, but landing in the middle of the night is even more so. However, this tough task can be eased up by using technology such as a landing lights, runway lights, and approach lights. What’s more, most modern airplanes already come with highly reliable instruments that make the life of the pilot easier, especially in these situations.

In short, practice makes perfect, so it is important for pilots to use all the resources they have available over and over again. This way they can be sure they will not fall into the illusions mentioned above, and they will always have a safe landing.

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Jet pilot @NASA

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