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Five night flying illusions and how to avoid them

Night flying requires a whole new skill set from pilots and whilst vision is the primary sense that pilots need to fly safely, it is also the sense that struggles the most during this phase of flight.

In this article, we look at five illusions that affect pilots at night and discuss methods for prevention.

Five illusions that affect pilots at night and how to avoid them.

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1. The black-hole illusion.

The black-hole illusion occurs when an aircraft approaches a runway at night with no visible references other than the runway lighting. Without street lights or buildings, it can be challenging to estimate your height and approach slope. This is known as a "Black Hole Approach".

Pilots often think they are higher than they are resulting in an urge to fly a lower and flatter approach. This is particularly hazardous because there is a high risk of the aircraft colliding with a ground obstacle.

To combat the black hole illusion, the pilot should rely on the flight instruments to maintain orientation, ensure the approach is stable and where approach aids are found such as a PAPI or ILS, they should be used.

The black-hole approach may trick the pilot into thinking that they are higher than they are.
The black-hole approach may trick the pilot into thinking that they are higher than they are.

2. Visual autokinesis.

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 because a good scanning procedure reduces the probability of vision becoming fixed on one source of light.

3. Flicker Vertigo.

Flashing lights or flicker effects from propellors and helicopter rotor blades can cause disorientation, confusion and even nausea and headaches . This is known as flicker vertigo and can be prevented by looking away from the light source as much as possible. It may also help to turn off the strobe light and adjust the propellor rpm where possible.

4. False visual reference illusion.

False visual reference illusions may cause a pilot to orient their aircraft in relation to a false horizon; these illusions are caused by at night over featureless terrain with ground lights

that are indistinguishable from a dark sky with stars, or night flying over a featureless terrain with a clearly defined pattern of ground lights and a dark, starless sky.

Stars reflect on the water and no horizon is visible.
Stars reflect on the water and no horizon is visible.

It can also occur when flying over a large body of water at night with a clear sky. The stars reflect on the water and no discernable horizon is visible.

5. Distance perception illusion.

Lit objects such as masts, towns and other aircraft may appear to be much closer than they actually are. This is because the brain interprets the apparent intensity of the light against its dark background as being closer than it is, rather than brighter. To safeguard against this, the pilot should cross reference the lit objects with their chart or navigation device.

Tips for avoidance.

Always trust the flight instruments and maintain a constant scan. Cross reference all information from the instruments and what you see out the window to build up a thorough picture of the situation. It also helps to be current and in good practice.

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