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Training Tip: CFIT in the darkTraining Tip: CFIT in the dark

Distracted by conflicting airspeed readouts on two instruments during a night landing, a Cessna 172 pilot looked up just in time to see tree branches approaching.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

Other factors contributed to the 2017 controlled-flight-into-terrain (CFIT) accident that left the Cessna substantially damaged but the pilot unharmed. The pilot’s altitude judgment was hindered by a phenomenon known as the black hole effect. Also, he reported to the National Transportation Safety Board, a newly installed electronic instrument’s brightness exacerbated his failure to realize the airplane was too low.

If the daylight-deficient days of late fall become the time when you nail down the night flying requirements of your training program, don’t set out without an awareness of the adjustments you will have to make in your landing technique to compensate for lack of visual cues readily available in daytime. If approaching over water or unlighted terrain, with little else but runway lights to guide you, “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,” notes the discussion of the “black-hole approach” in Chapter 10 of the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge.

If you learned to land at an airport with a visual approach slope indicator or other vertical-guidance system and were cautioned not to become dependent on it for routine daylight flying, you will now find it extremely helpful for night arrivals, and its use is encouraged. (Consider selecting a VASI-equipped airport for a visit on a night cross-country.)

The basic flight-by-reference-to-instruments techniques you learn come into practical use in a black-hole scenario—particularly if overwater flight is involved, as this account of a 2002 accident suggests. “The lack of a natural horizon for VFR pilots can lead to spatial disorientation. If you are flying into dark, low-light airport use extra caution and don't be afraid to rely on your basic instrument skills,” the narrative cautions.

The black hole problem is one of several illusions characteristic of night operations, all of which are capable of disrupting your situational awareness. Reviewing the destination airport layout carefully before flight is a hedge against disorientation.

The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge chapter offers a strategy for dealing with an unexpected night encounter with bright lights inside or outside the aircraft: Close one of your dark-adapted eyes “to help avoid the blinding effect.”

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Collision Avoidance, Flight Planning, Night Flying
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