Night Vision

Generally, most pilots are poorly informed about night vision. Human eyes never function as effectively at night as the eyes of animals with nocturnal habits, but if humans learn how to use their eyes correctly and know their limitations, night vision can be improved significantly.

The brain and eyes act as a team for a person to see well; both must be used effectively. Due to the physiology of the eye, limitations on sight are experienced in low light conditions, such as at night. To see at night, the eyes are used differently than during the day. Therefore, it is important to understand the eye’s construction and how the eye is affected by darkness. Innumerable light-sensitive nerves called “cones” and “rods” are located at the back of the eye or retina, a layer upon which all images are focused. These nerves connect to the cells of the optic nerve, which transmits messages directly to the brain. The cones are located in the center of the retina, and the rods are concentrated in a ring around the cones. [Figure]

Figure. Rods and cones

The function of the cones is to detect color, details, and faraway objects. The rods function when something is seen out of the corner of the eye or peripheral vision. They detect objects, particularly those that are moving, but do not give detail or color—only shades of gray. Both the cones and the rods are used for vision during daylight.

Although there is not a clear-cut division of function, the rods make night vision possible. The rods and cones function in daylight and in moonlight, but in the absence of normal light, the process of night vision is placed almost entirely on the rods. The rods are distributed in a band around the cones and do not lie directly behind the pupils, which makes off-center viewing (looking to one side of an object) important during night flight. During daylight, an object can be seen best by looking directly at it, but at night there is a blind spot in the center of the field of vision, the night blind spot. If an object is in this area, it may not be seen. The size of this blind spot increases as the distance between the eye and the object increases as illustrated in Figure. Therefore, the night blind spot can hide larger objects as the distance between the pilot and an object increases. Use of a scanning procedure to permit off-center viewing of the object is more effective. Consciously practice this scanning procedure to improve night vision.

The eye’s adaptation to darkness is another important aspect of night vision. When a dark room is entered, it is difficult to see anything until the eyes become adjusted to the darkness. Almost everyone experiences this when entering a darkened movie theater. In this process, the pupils of the eyes first enlarge to receive as much of the available light as possible. After approximately 5 to 10 minutes, the cones become adjusted to the dim light and the eyes become approximately 100 times more sensitive to the light than they were before the dark room was entered. Much more time, about 30 minutes, is needed for the rods to become adjusted to darkness, but when they do adjust, they are about 100,000 times more sensitive to light than they were in the lighted area. After the adaptation process is complete, much more can be seen, especially if scanning techniques are used correctly.

After the eyes have adapted to the dark, the entire process is reversed when entering a lighted room. The eyes are first dazzled by the brightness, but become completely adjusted in a very few seconds, thereby losing their adaptation to the dark. Now, if the dark room is re-entered, the eyes again go through the long process of adapting to the darkness.

Before and during night flight, the adaptation process of the eyes must be considered. First, adapt to the low level of light and then stay adapted. After the eyes are adapted to the darkness, avoid exposing them for more than one second to any bright white light as that causes temporary blindness. If exposed to a bright light source, such as search lights and landing lights, remember that each eye adapts to the dark independently. By closing or covering one eye when exposed to light, some night vision acuity is retained in the closed eye.

Temporary blindness, caused by an unusually bright light, may result in illusions or after images until the eyes recover from the brightness. The brain creates these illusions reported by the eyes. This results in misjudging or incorrectly identifying objects, such as mistaking slanted clouds for the horizon or populated areas for a landing field. Vertigo is experienced as a feeling of dizziness and imbalance that can create or increase illusions. The illusions seem very real and pilots at every level of experience and skill can be affected. Recognizing that the brain and eyes can play tricks in this manner is the best protection for flying at night.

Good eyesight depends upon physical condition. Fatigue, colds, vitamin deficiency, alcohol, stimulants, smoking, or medication can seriously impair vision. Keep these facts in mind and take adequate precautions to safeguard night vision. In addition to the principles previously discussed, the following items aid in increasing night vision effectiveness.
  • Adapt the eyes to darkness prior to flight and keep them adapted. About 30 minutes is needed to adjust the eyes to maximum efficiency after exposure to a bright light.
  • If oxygen is available, use it during night flying. Keep in mind that a significant deterioration in night vision can occur at cabin altitudes as low as 5,000 feet.
  • Close one eye when exposed to bright light to help avoid the blinding effect.
  • Do not wear sunglasses after sunset as this impairs night vision.
  • Move the eyes more slowly than in daylight.
  • Blink the eyes if they become blurred.
  • Concentrate on seeing objects.
  • Force the eyes to view off center using scanning techniques.
  • Maintain good physical condition.
  • Avoid smoking, drinking, and using drugs that may be harmful.