Of the senses, vision is the most important for safe flight. However, various terrain features and atmospheric conditions can create optical illusions. These illusions are primarily associated with landing. Since pilots must transition from reliance on instruments to visual cues outside the flight deck for landing at the end of an instrument approach, it is imperative they be aware of the potential problems associated with these illusions and take appropriate corrective action. The major illusions leading to landing errors are described below.
Runway Width Illusion
A narrower-than-usual runway can create an illusion the aircraft is at a higher altitude than it actually is, especially when runway length-to-width relationships are comparable. [Figure 3-9A] The pilot who does not recognize this illusion will fly a lower approach with the risk of striking objects along the approach path or landing short. A wider-than-usual runway can have the opposite effect with the risk of leveling out high and landing hard or overshooting the runway.
Runway and Terrain Slopes Illusion
An upsloping runway, upsloping terrain, or both can create an illusion the aircraft is at a higher altitude than it actually is. [Figure 3-9B] The pilot who does not recognize this illusion will fly a lower approach. Downsloping runways and downsloping approach terrain can have the opposite effect.
Featureless Terrain Illusion
An absence of surrounding ground features, as in an overwater approach, over darkened areas, or terrain made featureless by snow, can create an illusion the aircraft is at a higher altitude than it actually is. This illusion, sometimes referred to as the “black hole approach,” causes pilots to fly a lower approach than is desired.
Rain on the windscreen can create an illusion of being at a higher altitude due to the horizon appearing lower than it is. This can result in the pilot flying a lower approach.
Atmospheric haze can create an illusion of being at a greater distance and height from the runway. As a result, the pilot has a tendency to be low on the approach. Conversely, extremely clear air (clear bright conditions of a high attitude airport) can give the pilot the illusion of being closer than he or she actually is, resulting in a high approach that may cause an overshoot or go around. The diffusion of light due to water particles on the windshield can adversely affect depth perception. The lights and terrain features normally used to gauge height during landing become less effective for the pilot.
Flying into fog can create an illusion of pitching up. Pilots who do not recognize this illusion often steepen the approach quite abruptly.
Ground Lighting Illusions
Lights along a straight path, such as a road or lights on moving trains, can be mistaken for runway and approach lights. Bright runway and approach lighting systems, especially where few lights illuminate the surrounding terrain, may create the illusion of less distance to the runway. The pilot who does not recognize this illusion will often fly a higher approach.
How To Prevent Landing Errors Due to Optical Illusions
To prevent these illusions and their potentially hazardous consequences, pilots can:
- Anticipate the possibility of visual illusions during approaches to unfamiliar airports, particularly at night or in adverse weather conditions. Consult airport diagrams and the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) for information on runway slope, terrain, and lighting.
- Make frequent reference to the altimeter, especially during all approaches, day and night.
- If possible, conduct aerial visual inspection of unfamiliar airports before landing.
- Use Visual Approach Slope Indicator (VASI) or Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) systems for a visual reference or an electronic glideslope, whenever they are available.
- Utilize the visual descent point (VDP) found on many nonprecision instrument approach procedure charts.
- Recognize that the chances of being involved in an approach accident increase when some emergency or other activity distracts from usual procedures.
- Maintain optimum proficiency in landing procedures.