Vision in Flight – Night Vision (Part Three)

Night Vision Illusions

There are many different types of visual illusions that commonly occur at night. Anticipating and maintaining awareness of them is usually the best way to avoid them.


Autokinesis is caused by staring at a single point of light against a dark background for more than a few seconds. After a few moments, the light appears to move on its own. Apparent movement of the light source will begin in about 8 to 10 seconds. To prevent this illusion, focus the eyes on objects at varying distances and avoid fixating on one source of light. This illusion can be eliminated or reduced by visual scanning, by increasing the number of lights, or by varying the light intensity. The most important of the three solutions is visual scanning. A light or lights should not be stared at for more than 10 seconds.

How to Fly an AirplaneFlight Literacy Recommends

Rod Machado's How to Fly an Airplane Handbook – Learn the basic fundamentals of flying any airplane. Make flight training easier, less expensive, and more enjoyable. Master all the checkride maneuvers. Learn the "stick and rudder" philosophy of flying. Prevent an airplane from accidentally stalling or spinning. Land a plane quickly and enjoyably.

False Horizon

A false horizon can occur when the natural horizon is obscured or not readily apparent. It can be generated by confusing bright stars and city lights. It can also occur while flying toward the shore of an ocean or a large lake. Because of the relative darkness of the water, the lights along the shoreline can be mistaken for stars in the sky. [Figure 17-22]

Figure 17-22. At night, the horizon may be hard to discern due to dark terrain and misleading light patterns on the ground.

Figure 17-22. At night, the horizon may be hard to discern due to dark terrain and misleading light patterns on the ground.

Reversible Perspective Illusion

At night, an aircraft may appear to be moving away from a second aircraft when it is, in fact, approaching a second aircraft. This illusion often occurs when an aircraft is flying parallel to another’s course. To determine the direction of flight, pilots should observe aircraft lights and their relative position to the horizon. If the intensity of the lights increases, the aircraft is approaching; if the lights dim, the aircraft is moving away.

Size-Distance Illusion

This illusion results from viewing a source of light that is increasing or decreasing in luminance (brightness). Pilots may interpret the light as approaching or retreating.


Fascination (Fixation)

This illusion occurs when pilots ignore orientation cues and fix their attention on a goal or an object. Student pilots tend to have this happen when they are concentrating on the aircraft instruments or attempting to land. They become fixated on one task and forget to look at what is going on around them. At night, this can be especially dangerous because aircraft ground-closure rates are difficult to determine, and there may be minimal time to correct the situation.

Flicker Vertigo

A light flickering at a rate between 4 and 20 cycles per second can produce unpleasant and dangerous reactions. Such conditions as nausea, vomiting, and vertigo may occur. On rare occasions, convulsions and unconsciousness may also occur. Proper scanning techniques at night can prevent pilots from getting flicker vertigo.

Night Landing Illusions

Landing illusions occur in many forms. Above featureless terrain at night, there is a natural tendency to fly a lower-than-normal approach. Elements that cause any type of visual obscurities, such as rain, haze, or a dark runway environment, can also cause low approaches. Bright lights, steep surrounding terrain, and a wide runway can produce the illusion of being too low with a tendency to fly a higher-than-normal approach. A set of regularly spaced lights along a road or highway can appear to be runway lights. Pilots have even mistaken the lights on moving trains as runway or approach lights. Bright runway or approach lighting systems can create the illusion that the aircraft is closer to the runway, especially where few lights illuminate the surrounding terrain.

Prior to flying at night, it is best to learn and know the challenges of the area in which you are flying in. Study the area and know how to navigate your way through areas that may pose a problem at night. For example, many areas near water may be obscured by low lying clouds or fog. To help deal with this type of situation, it is important to have a plan before you leave the ground. In the daytime, fly the routes and passes that you will be flying at night and determine the minimum altitude you are willing to use at night. If weather prevents you from maintaining the altitude that you planned, make a decision early to turn 180° and land at an alternate airport with better weather conditions. Always consider safer alternatives rather than hope things will work out by taking a chance.

Pilots who fly at night should strongly consider oxygen supplementation at altitudes and times not required by the FAA, especially at night when critical judgment and hand-eye coordination is necessary (e.g., IFR) or if he/she is a smoker or not perfectly healthy.


Enhanced Night Vision Systems

Synthetic Vision Systems (SVS) and Enhanced Flight Vision Systems (EFVS) are two systems that can improve the safety of flight at night. The technology of both is evolving rapidly and being used more and more. [Figure 17-23]

Figure 17-23. Synthetic and enhanced vision systems.

Figure 17-23. Synthetic and enhanced vision systems. [click image to enlarge]

Synthetic Vision System

A Synthetic Vision System (SVS) is an electronic means to display a synthetic vision image of the external scene topography to the flight crew. [Figure 17-24] It is not a real-time image like that produced by an EFVS. Unlike EFVS, SVS requires a terrain and obstacle database, a precise navigation solution, and a display. The terrain image is based on the use of data from a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) that is stored within the SVS. With SVS, the synthetic terrain/vision image is intended to enhance pilot awareness of spatial position relative to important features in all visibility conditions. This is particularly useful during critical phases of flight, such as takeoff, approach, and landing, where important features, such as terrain, obstacles, runways, and landmarks, may be depicted on the SVS display. [Figure 17-25] During approach operations, the obvious advantages of SVS are that the digital terrain image remains on the pilot’s display regardless of how poor the visibility is outside.

Figure 17-24. SVS system.

Figure 17-24. SVS system.

An SVS image can be displayed on either a head-down display or head-up display (HUD); however, to date, SVS has only been certified on head-down displays. Development efforts to display a synthetic image on a HUD are currently underway as are efforts that would combine SVS with a real-time sensor image produced by an EFVS. These systems are known as Combined Vision Systems. While SVS is currently certified as an aid to situation awareness only, the FAA and aviation industry are working on defining operational concepts and airworthiness criteria that would enable SVS to be used for operational credit in certain low visibility conditions. Other future enhancements to SVS displays could include integrating ADS-B to display traffic information.

Figure 17-25. Night time SVS system.

Figure 17-25. Night time SVS system.

Enhanced Flight Vision System

Enhanced Vision (EV) or Enhanced Flight Vision System (EFVS) is an electronic means to provide a display of the external scene by use of an imaging sensor, such as a Forward-Looking InfraRed (FLIR) or millimeter wave radar (MMWR). In 2004, 14 CFR part 91, section 91.175 was amended to reflect that operators conducting straight-in instrument approach procedures (in other than Category II or Category III operations) may now operate below the published decision height (DH) or minimum descent altitude (MDA) when using an approved EFVS shown on the pilot’s HUD. This rule change provides “operational credit” for EV equipage. No such credit exists for SV.

Flight Literacy Recommends

Rod Machado's Private Pilot Handbook -Flight Literacy recommends Rod Machado's products because he takes what is normally dry and tedious and transforms it with his characteristic humor, helping to keep you engaged and to retain the information longer. (see all of Rod Machado's Products).