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Landing is without a doubt one of the hardest things to do well in aviation. Landing at night is even harder. And since it's officially the 2nd day of winter, we all have a lot of night time to deal with.
With significantly fewer visual cues, you need to rely on your instruments and airport lighting much more to make it down in one piece. There are a lot of different ways to screw up your night landing (more than we can possibly list here), but these are 5 of the main reasons things don't go well on night landings.
When you're flying into an airport that has very few ground features around it, it gives you the illusion that you're higher than you actually are. That's because the airport looks like an island of bright lights, with nothing but darkness around it.
Pilots tend to fly lower approaches into these kinds of airports, hence the name "black hole effect". The darkness sucks you in, and if you aren't careful, can cause you to crash short of the runway.
At non-towered airports, you control the runway lighting by keying the mic. 3 clicks for low intensity, 5 clicks for medium intensity, and 7 clicks for high (when they have it).
When you're trying to locate the airport, it's usually best to bring the lights up to high. But once you've spotted it, the high intensity lights can cause problems.
That's because when the lights are bright, you feel like you're closer to the runway than you actually are, causing you to fly a higher-than-normal approach. Why? Because when the lights are bright, you have the illusion that you're lower and closer to the runway, causing you to fly a higher glide path than you normally would.
But that's not the only problem with high intensity lights. As you approach your round out and flare, the lights can be blinding, making is very hard to see the runway itself. And when you can't see the runway, it's hard to make a good landing.
Landing in rain at night is a lot like the black hole effect. If you're landing in rain, you get the illusion that you're higher than you actually are. And that means you're going to fly a lower than normal approach.
We've all been there in the daytime, trying to land on an unusually wide or narrow runway, and being way off on glide.
The same problems happen at night too. If you're landing on a wide runway, you have the illusion that you're too low, and you fly a higher than normal glide path.
And if you're landing on a narrow runway, you have the illusion that you're too high, which can fool you into flying a lower than normal glide path.
Aside from all these problems we've already listed, just finding the airport can be a challenge.
Some airports, like Cortez, CO, have brightly lit highways near them. And believe it or not, the highway can be pretty easily mistaken for a runway or approach lighting system.
If you find yourself lining up for a highway instead of the runway, you're going to find yourself with all sorts of problems, from being too high or too low, or getting dangerously close to terrain and unlit obstacles.
So what's the solution to all of these problems? Navigate, navigate, navigate.
Almost all lighted runways have a glideslope system, whether it's visual, electronic, or both.
When it comes to visual glideslopes, PAPI and VASI systems are the most popular ones out there.
For PAPIs, you want to see two red, and two white. (Remember the saying "two red, two white, just right"?) And for VASIs, you want to see red over white ("red over white, just right").
If the runway has an ILS, that's even better. By dialing up the ILS frequency, you'll have electronic guidance all the way down final. This is a tool you can use even if you aren't instrument rated. Have an instructor show you how to find the ILS frequency, and how to dial it up. When you combine it with a PAPI or VASI, you'll have a combo of the best guidance for a perfect night landing.
Landing is tough, and landing at night is even tougher. Poor lighting around and airport and leave you low, and brightly lit airports can leave you high.
By using visual and electronic glideslopes to back yourself up, you can easily overcome the illusions that will mess up your night landing. And with a little practice, your night landings will be every bit as good as they are when the sun is shining.
Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.