In the early days of aviation, flying at night was a rare occurrence.
Today, it is a normal and routine practice in commercial aviation and even for private pilots. If you’ve ever been on any long-range flights, you have no doubt flown at night, too.
That begs the question, how do pilots see at night?
After all, you can barely see anything at night without proper illumination on the ground.
The answer is that pilots can’t actually see during the night. Instead, pilots depend mostly on navigational instruments to find their way when flying at night.
Modern commercial planes are only equipped with enough illumination that pilots can see the ground during landing and takeoff.
Table of Contents
- 1 How Pilots See At Night
- 2 Flying At Night Under IFR
- 3 Flying At Night Under VFR
- 4 Can Pilots See Anything At Night?
- 5 What Lights Do Planes Have, and Do They Help Pilots See at Night?
- 6 Pilots Don’t Really Like Flying At Night
- 7 How Pilots Land At Night
How Pilots See At Night
Planes flying in the National Airspace Systems, which is the airspace, navigation facilities and airports of the United States, use Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR).
Pilots navigate during the night using IFR and VFR rules.
While pilots can’t technically see during the night, these rules help them navigate in darkness.
Almost every aircraft follows one of these rules, depending on various factors.
The Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) were developed by the U.S Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to govern flights with low visibility.
IFR rules involve using onboard navigational instruments and navigating by using electronic signals.
When flying at night, careful IFR flight planning is required to ensure pilots will be able to navigate successfully.
Visual Flight Rules (VFR) govern how pilots operate planes in low visibility weather conditions.
The VFR stipulates how pilots should fly planes with visual reference to the ground.
One of the most important aspects of the VFR rules include instructions on how pilots can avoid colliding with obstacles and obstructions.
Flying At Night Under IFR
IFR rules are more commonly used than VFR ones.
This is naturally due to the sophistication of onboard navigational equipment.
Modern airplane instruments are advanced enough to allow pilots to fly with ease during low visibility conditions, including flying at night.
IFR rules are particularly easy to implement nowadays because of modern auto-pilot systems.
For these reasons, IFR rules are considered preferential for flying at night.
Flying At Night Under VFR
In order to fly at night under VFR, a pilot must complete the following:
- A total of 5 hours of VFR flying at night (NVFR),
- including 3 hours dual flying (with an instructor),
- including 5 take-offs and landings at night,
- including 1 dual navigational flight by visual flight rules at night, at least 50 km and 1 hour.
VFR rules are more difficult to manage because of their dependence on visual references from the ground.
Can Pilots See Anything At Night?
Generally, pilots can’t see anything at night.
If you’ve ever looked outside your window during a night flight, you’re seeing what pilots can see in the cockpit – i.e. nothing but darkness.
Instead of depending on visuals from the cockpit, pilots depend on other instruments.
When landing at night, pilots can use numerous onboard illumination devices to improve visibility.
Pilots can also use on-ground beacons to ensure a smooth descent and landing.
What Lights Do Planes Have, and Do They Help Pilots See at Night?
Planes have three sets of lights that provide illumination during the night, but most of these lights are used only for signaling to other planes.
Planes have headlights, which are forward-facing lights, that improve illumination, and are only useful during takeoffs and landing.
They do not assist in illumination during cruising, so do not help pilots see at night when in the sky.
If you’ve ever looked at a plane flying overhead, and seen a flashing light, that was the anti-collision light.
The anti-collision light is located on the bottom of a plane, and it flashes either red or white.
Its purpose is to alert other airplanes. So again, these lights do not help pilots see at night.
Position lights are located on an aircraft’s wings, and they help pilots alert other airplanes.
Position lights also help signal a plane’s direction.
Other planes see a plane’s position lights to understand what direction it’s going, so they can adjust accordingly to avoid collision.
Pilots Don’t Really Like Flying At Night
It depends on the individual, but pilots, especially if they do not have many years of experience, generally do not like flying at night.
Whenever private pilots are asked about the similarities and differences between flying in the day vs. at night, they always talk about having to scan for other aircraft.
During the night, and especially in busy airspace, pilots have to make sure there are no nearby aircraft with which they can collide with. In contrast, pilots can easily spot other planes during the day.
So, some pilots find it difficult to fly at night due to the lack of visual information.
Some pilots report it being easier to fly at night due to generally low traffic and reduced radio communication.
Some pilots also find it more comforting to fly at night because of how quiet it is.
So, it largely depends on the individual pilot.
How Pilots Land At Night
Runways are lined up with red and white lights, known as runway edge lights, to illuminate the runway at night. The taxiways are also lined with blue lights.
The red and white lights on runways exist to alert pilots of their altitude.
If pilots see the white lights, it means they’re too high, and if they see the red lights, they’re too low.
Pilots depend on these lights to understand their plane’s position in the sky.
Runway lights are also sometimes installed at specific angles to indicate what direction and angle the airplane should land from.
Pilots use these lights and on-board navigational instruments to land planes at night.
Landing at night is ranked as more difficult than landing during the day, and nighttime landings cause planes to crash more often than during the daytime.
In conclusion, pilots can’t actually see at night.
Instead of depending on visual sight, pilots use either VFR or IFR rules.
IFR rules are more popular today because of the increased sophistication of navigational equipment and improved autopilot systems.
Planes also have illumination systems, but they’re only used during landing and takeoffs.
Pilots are unable to illuminate the sky when cruising.
Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.
Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.
Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).