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Jet Crew Skims Treetops During Moonless, Nighttime Landing

If you've ever flown a VFR approach at night, you should read this...

Hazards During Nighttime Visual Approaches

Visual approaches are supposed to be easier than instrument procedures, right? Sometimes they are, but not always. Visual approaches lead to incidents and accidents each year, especially around terrain at night.

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. All of this in combination presents serious challenges for pilots flying visual approaches at night.

Before we dig into training tips, let's take a look at just how close one crew came to an accident...

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Report: Moonless Night, Low Approach

The following NASA ASRS report was published following an impact with treetops during the final stages of a nighttime landing. This ATP-rated crew had a combined 20,000+ airplane hours and flew a Bombardier Challenger Jet. Incidents just like this can happen to any pilot, no matter the experience level...

We received the landing information and canceled our radar coverage with Approach. There was no natural lighting (moonlight) to use and the runway did not have a VASI. We proceeded with care to the landing point. At about 250 ft AGL and 1,000 ft laterally from the runway, with good visibility of the runway, we hit the top of a tree. The aircraft did not change attitude and the landing was uneventful. After a postflight I found small marks on the leading edge and grounded the aircraft until further inspection could be made.


Wikimedia

Darkness Increases CFIT Risks

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. In this case, the airport did not have a VASI, so the pilots needed to rely on cockpit instrumentation and visual cues, which there were few of, to judge their descent.

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The "Black Hole" Effect

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. The report detailed above is a perfect example of just how dangerous this illusion can be.

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... Or in this case, nearly impact trees or terrain just before the runway.

Here's what a low vs. normal approach path looks like at night. Notice how flat and wide the runway looks during a lower-than-normal approach:

Cleared For A Visual Approach At Night Without Visual Guidance?

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, you're outside the VASI/PAPI service volume, or the runway doesn't have visual approach guidance available.

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 to touchdown. As you get close to the runway, stay on the glideslope/glidepath as long as possible. Ideally, until you're 50-75 feet above the runway. Avoid "dipping" below the published slope as you transition from following instrument-only guidance to purely visual references. At night, with no VASI/PAPI, it's very difficult to judge height well.

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What Do You Think?

If you've ever flown a nighttime approach without visual guidance, you know just how challenging the black hole effect can be. What's your strategy to stay safe and not fly too low? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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