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5 Ways Your Night Landing Can Go Bad

Boldmethod

Landing is, without a doubt, one of the hardest things to do in aviation. Landing at night is even harder. And since it's the middle of summer and sunset is late, we all rarely get a chance to practice night landings.

With significantly fewer visual cues, you need to rely on your instruments and airport lighting much more during night landings. There are lots of different reasons your night landing can go badly (more than we can possibly list here), but these are 5 of the most common problem areas.

1) Black Hole Effect

When you're flying into an airport that has very few ground features and lights around it, you get 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, it can cause you to crash short of the runway.

Solution: use the PAPI or VASI lights, and use the ILS for vertical guidance, if the runway has it.

2) High Intensity Lights

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 (if the airport has 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 runway 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 than you really are, 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.

Solution: turn the lights down to low or medium intensity (3 or 5 clicks on CTAF) when you enter the pattern.

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3) Rain

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. That means you could fly a lower than normal approach, getting you dangerously close to the ground.

Solution: use the PAPI or VASI lights, and use the ILS for vertical guidance, if the runway has it.

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4) Runway Width Illusions

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.

Solution: use the PAPI or VASI lights, and use the ILS for vertical guidance, if the runway has it.

5) Locating The Airport, And NOT The Highway

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.

Solution: zoom in on your GPS, or load an approach to verify that you're lined up with the runway. Look for the airport's rotating beacon, and change the runway lighting intensity. All of these will help you verify you're pointed at the runway.

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Using VASI/PAPI, And The ILS

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").

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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 safe night landing.

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Making Safer Night Landings

Landing is tough, and landing at night is even tougher. Poor lighting and precip around the airport can 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 these illusions. And with a little practice, your night landings will be every bit as good as they are on a bright, sunny day.

Colin Cutler

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 colin@boldmethod.com.

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