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Is It Safe To Fly Visual Approaches At Night?

Visual approaches aren't always straight forward, and flying them at night adds extra complexity. So, how safe is it to fly them?

But First... Let's Review Why Visual Approaches Are So Challenging

You'd think that a visual approach would be one of the easiest things in instrument flying, right? You get visual approaches when the weather's good, and when you have the field in sight. But visual approaches can be one of the more difficult things in the IFR world.

Often times when you're cleared for the visual, you're not lined up with the runway, you're several miles (or 10s of miles) from the airport, and you're high. On top of that, you typically spend less time looking at your instruments, and more time focused on what's happening outside your windscreen.

Visual approaches are a leading cause for both CFIT accidents and flight crews mistakenly landing at wrong airports.

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Darkness Increases The Risk Of CFIT On Visual Approaches

Visual approaches are challenging enough during day time. When you fly them on a dark night, you lose important visual references around you. This makes spotting terrain and obstacles tough, if not impossible. To avoid terrain, you'll need to make sure the airport lighting is clearly visible before you begin your descent, and that you're within the service volume of the visual glide slope indicator.

If you fly a visual approach at night and you lose contact with the airport lights, it's time for an go-around. The visual approach has either been obstructed by clouds, or worse yet, terrain in your flight path. It can't be stressed enough how important a go-around can be.

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Beyond CFIT risks, darkness with limited vertical guidance can lead to the "black hole effect" when approaching the runway. 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.

Simply 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.

The 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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If You're Cleared For A Visual Approach At Night, Here's What You Should Do...

Following a published instrument approach is one of the easiest ways to make sure you're lined up with the right runway. And in addition to that, it gives you the confidence that you're not getting too low, especially when you're miles from the runway, where it can be hard to see the VASI/PAPI, or you're outside the VASI/PAPI service volume.

When you back yourself up with a precision approach for the visual, you know that you're lined up with the right runway, at the right airport. Plus, you get the added benefit of a constant glide path all the way to the pavement, which makes your approach more stable and safe, all the way down.

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Even if there's only a non-precision approach for your runway, follow the altitudes along the final approach course, and you'll stay clear of obstacles at the same the entire way to the runway.

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.

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Plan Your Go-Around

Unlike published instrument approach procedures, there are no published missed approach procedures for visual approaches. At tower-controlled airports, the tower will give you missed approach instructions, and non-towered airports, it's up to you.

Make sure you pre-brief your go-around scenario based on terrain, available runways, weather, and nearby traffic.

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What's your strategy for flying visual approaches at night? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and commercial pilot for Mokulele Airlines. In addition to multi-engine and instrument ratings, he holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525). He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018. He's the author of the articles, quizzes and lists you love to read every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures at http://www.swaynemartin.com.

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