Have you ever wondered what the view from a pilot’s cockpit is like, or how a pilot navigates through the clouds? It’s an interesting question – most of what the pilot will be seeing is a vast sea of clouds without any landmarks or signs pointing them in the right direction.
Throw in the darkness of the night sky, and it’s enough to make anyone wonder just how pilots actually see in the dark.
Luckily, we’ve got the answers to all your questions (and more)! In this article, we’ll take a look at how pilots are able to navigate through the night sky, from the instruments that they use to the strength of their own eyes.
We’ll also cover different ways pilots are able to ‘see’ where they’re going in general, as well as some ways pilots augment their vision to make it easier to see during the night.
So without further ado, let’s jump right into it!
What Can A Pilot See?
As mentioned earlier, most of what a pilot sees during flight is a mass of clouds against an empty sky. Without anything to guide the way, like a map or signs giving directions, you might feel like pilots either instinctively know where to go or just leave it up to guesswork.
However, there are actually several ways that pilots are able to see where they are going without the normal visual aids that you would expect from, driving a car or something similar.
Pilots navigate mostly with one of two methods – IFR and VFR. Don’t worry if these terms mean nothing to you – here’s a breakdown of what they stand for.
Seeing With VFR
VFR (or visual flight rules) are pretty much what the name suggests. They refer to the sets of rules and guidelines based around using your regular vision to navigate while flying.
Pilots using VFR must fly while paying careful attention to their surroundings and have keen vision to keep track of where they are and how to control the plane.
Aside from requiring the pilot to use their vision to navigate instead of their instruments and instructions from air traffic support, flying with VFR means losing most input from air traffic control and the airport they are departing from or headed to.
This makes flying VFR extremely hard to do, especially at night or in poor conditions.
It’s not all bad, however, and VFR allows for much more freedom as you don’t have to fly in controlled airspace.
This means that you can take your aircraft basically anywhere you want to, as long as you’re staying within regulations and don’t attempt to fly anywhere you shouldn’t be!
Commercial flights won’t fly VFR, and it is mostly reserved for emergency services, leisure flights, and private aircraft.
Pilots need to prepare their eyes for flying VFR at night, and without adapting their vision they won’t be able to see anything outside their cockpit.
Eyes take about half an hour to adjust, so in preparation for night flights, the pilot will sit in a dark room or under the night sky to help their eyes adapt to seeing in the dark.
On some occasions, pilots might use night vision goggles to get an extra advantage for seeing at night; however, using a pair of night vision goggles correctly requires proper training and high-quality goggles to actually benefit a pilot.
Seeing With IFR
IFR (or Instrument Flight Rules) is almost the exact opposite of VFR. It involves using the many instruments inside the pilot’s cockpit to navigate, letting the pilot ‘see’ where they’re going without actually having to look outside at the sky (see also “How Much Math Is Involved With Being A Pilot?“).
This makes flying at night easier, as the pilot can rely on the navigation tools at their disposal to guide the plane.
Most commercial flights, or planes with more than 20 seats in total, will fly using IFR. As a result, these planes follow planned routes with the assistance of air traffic control, which will help guide the pilot and track the aircraft using radar.
Some instruments used for IFR include altimeters (which measure the plane’s altitude), barometers (which monitor the air pressure), gyroscopes (to track how much the plane is tilting horizontally, as well as its rate of climbing or descent), and airspeed indicators (which, surprisingly, measures the speed of the airplane).
These tools are all vital for helping pilots navigate, and without the need to even look outside the plane it’s far easier for pilots to fly at night.
While IFR doesn’t let the pilots see in the traditional sense of the word, it is more than enough to make sure that the pilot is always aware of their situation.
Combine that with input from air traffic control to ensure that the plane is always going in the right direction and it shows that IFR is just as useful (if not more so) than relying on your vision alone.
Other Ways Pilots Can See At Night
It’s not just down to the pilot’s eyes and the readings from their instruments that allow them to fly at night. There are also several other things that help pilots to navigate properly in the dark.
The lights from the airport, towns, cities, and other forms of light pollution can also cast a light on where the pilot needs to go, as well as help them to judge their altitude and airspeed. As mentioned before, night vision goggles can also be used to improve how well the pilot can see.
Radar is used for multiple reasons, from detecting mountains and tall buildings to checking the positions of other aircraft.
By sending out electromagnetic pulses and monitoring the ‘echoes’ caused by them bouncing off of other objects, radar allows the pilot to see the size, position, and speed of other objects occupying their airspace.
Flying at night isn’t easy, and it takes years of training and a keen eye to be able to fly a plane in the dark. With that said, there are plenty of ways a pilot can keep track of their surroundings without the benefit of light.
From training their eyes to see in the dark, to using the many instruments at their disposal, to communicating with air traffic control for extra support in the skies – it doesn’t matter how much a pilot can see outside their cockpit, there are countless ways for pilots to see at night.