Airplane Night Landings

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At night you lose many of the visual references that are available during the day—ground reference points, trees, fences, and buildings that you might use to help judge your altitude above the ground. Instead, you must fly your approach using the movement of the runway lights to tell you whether you are above or below the glide path, on the centerline of the runway, and where you are touching down on the runway. However, with a little practice, night landings are just as easy as landing during the daytime.

Approach planning
At an airport that has much traffic in the pattern you should turn your landing light on as you get near the airport’s vicinity to improve the chances of other traffic being able to see you. In lower traffic areas you may want to wait until you are on downwind before turning the landing light on to help conserve its life. As you come abeam the runway lights you are using for the touchdown point, bring your power back just as you would during a day approach, setting up the correct airspeed and descent values.

Once you have pulled the power back, trimmed the plane, and set the appropriate amount of flaps, you will continue on the downwind heading until you reach the key position we discussed previously. At that point begin your turn to base, letting other traffic know what you are doing over the radio.

As you fly the base leg, add flaps and maintain airspeeds just as you would during the day. You may find that night approaches make it more difficult to maintain your attitude visually from the horizon. Cross-check your external attitude reference with the instruments inside the plane. The artificial horizon, vertical speed indicator, and airspeed indicator become very important instruments during night approaches. Make sure you don’t bury your head in the cockpit, however, and ignore looking out the windows of the plane. If the runway you are landing on has VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator), you can also use this as a reference for touching down in the correct spot on the runway. At this point we are on final approach, our airspeed is set, we’ve gone through the prelanding checklists, and it’s time to think about when to begin the flare.

Height judgment/flare
During night landings you will have a limited field of view as you get close to the runway. Day landings allow you to see an almost unrestricted view of the runway and airport, but the runway illuminated by the landing light will be the only area you will have a clear view of. On very bright, moonlit nights you may gain some additional illumination, but this is often not the case. This means you must learn how to judge your height above the runway based on other references.

The first useful references are the runway lights themselves. Using peripheral vision, you may note the runway lights moving up on the side posts as you descend closer to the runway. As you descend low enough that the runway becomes illuminated by your landing lights, you have reached a point that you can use the runway itself as a visual reference.

Practicing night landings is the best way to become proficient at them and to develop a technique that works for you and the plane you fly. If you are at all rusty at night landings, or uncomfortable with them, find a qualified flight instructor to help you become safer and more proficient. With enough practice you will find that it is possible to accurately judge your height above the runway without any landing light at all.

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