Night Illusions

In addition to night vision limitations, night illusions can cause confusion and distractions during night flying. The following discussion covers some of the common situations that cause illusions associated with night flying.

On a clear night, distant stationary lights can be mistaken for stars or other aircraft. Cloud layers or even the northern lights can confuse a pilot and indicate a false visual horizon. Certain geometrical patterns of ground lights, such as a freeway, runway, approach, or even lights on a moving train, can cause confusion. Dark nights tend to eliminate reference to a visual horizon. As a result, pilots need to rely less on outside references at night and more on flight and navigation instruments.

Visual autokinesis can occur when staring at a single light source for several seconds on a dark night. The result is that the light appears to be moving. The autokinesis effect will not occur if the visual field is expanded through scanning techniques. A good scanning procedure reduces the probability of vision becoming fixed on one source of light.

Distractions and problems can result from a flickering light in the flightdeck, anti-collision light, or other aircraft lights and can cause flicker vertigo. If continuous, the possible physical reactions can be nausea, dizziness, grogginess, unconsciousness, headaches, or confusion. Try to eliminate any light source causing blinking or flickering problems in the flightdeck.

A black-hole approach occurs when the landing is made from over water or non-lighted terrain where the runway lights are the only source of light. Without peripheral visual cues to help, orientation is difficult. The runway can seem out of position (down-sloping or up-sloping) and in the worst case, results in landing short of the runway. If an electronic glide slope or visual approach slope indicator (VASI) is available, it should be used. If navigation aids (NAVAIDs) are unavailable, use the flight instruments to assist in maintaining orientation and a normal approach. Anytime position in relation to the runway or altitude is in doubt, execute a go-around.

Bright runway and approach lighting systems, especially where few lights illuminate the surrounding terrain, may create the illusion of being lower or having less distance to the runway. In this situation, the tendency is to fly a higher approach. Also, flying over terrain with only a few lights makes the runway recede or appear farther away. With this situation, the tendency is to fly a lower-than-normal approach. If the runway has a city in the distance on higher terrain, the tendency is to fly a lower-than-normal approach. A good review of the airfield layout and boundaries before initiating any approach helps maintain a safe approach angle.

Illusions created by runway lights result in a variety of problems. Bright lights or bold colors advance the runway, making it appear closer. Night landings are further complicated by the difficulty of judging distance and the possibility of confusing approach and runway lights. For example, when a double row of approach lights joins the boundary lights of the runway, there can be confusion where the approach lights terminate and runway lights begin. Under certain conditions, approach lights can make the aircraft seem higher in a turn to final, than when its wings are level.