Oct - An experienced two pilot crew flying a small GA aircraft recently flew into a mountain at night. This Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) tragedy is still under investigation, but it provides a chance to think about flight planning and some of the terrain illusions that we can see when we are flying at night.
The first place to start is with the chart. Minimum safe altitudes should be a part of any flight planning. Another great tool for the cockpit is the Garmin 496 (or other terrain system), which while advisory in nature, verifies what we have planned on the chart. Put your planning together with the terrain avoidance features of these advanced systems, and your situational awareness increases dramatically.
The quality and quantity of back lighting when flying near terrain, under night vision goggles, or unaided is a critical consideration. Our eyes (and night vision goggles) have a gain sensitivity. Imagine flying toward terrain with a bright city at your back, as you get close to the terrain you make a turn back toward the city - and then your terrain visibility goes to zero - because now you are looking into the lights of the city.
Other terrain lighting illusions are similar to the false horizon effect with clouds. Cultural lighting on a slope can appear to be level when in fact it is not.
One way that we combat these illusions is to vary the course of flight when near terrain, and change the horizontal angle of which we approach it. Changing course, say 30 degrees to the right, and then 30 degrees to the left will put the terrain and lights on the ground (if there are any) in motion with different relative motion rates - this will allow you to have a better picture of the makeup of the terrain.
May - Stick to the Numbers. There is a Citation Pilot that I have occasion to fly with now and then that has to be the best night flying pilot I have ever had the pleasure to fly with. The beauty of his night time patterns and approaches is that the numbers work out exactly the same in the night as they do in the day. He has reached this level of skill by making each day pattern and landing count. Flying "By the Numbers", and having the confidence of the desired result always repeating itself by perfecting his ability to hit the numbers each and every time. What do we mean by hitting the numbers, and how does this improve night flying. Hitting the numbers is simply flying the calculated pattern altitude as adjusted by conditions, NOTAMS, or Airport Facility Directory, and always at the proper airspeed and configuration. Placing the gear and flaps down at a predetermined time, and starting the turn to base at the same position. Flying to a calculated altitude mid way through the base leg, and turning final at the same time. This particular pilot sets the same power setting, and adjusts the pattern for wind conditions by speeding up or delaying final flap selection by a short time based upon experience and calculated altitudes for certain positions.
With such a close adherence to the numbers, and seeking perfection on each pattern, it is easy for him to translate this into a perfect pattern at night. Even when shooting black hole approaches with little or no references over the dark New Mexico desert, hitting the numbers takes all of the stress out of the approach, and gives him the confidence to make difficult approaches easy. A good pattern is the key to a good landing, and only by perfecting the numbers in the day time, can we perfect our night flying and avoid the common mistake of coming in high and hot.
April: Blind Cockpit Check. Often times pilots will strap into a rental or borrowed aircraft and depart into the sky without being as familiar as possible about that particular aircraft, after all, a 182 is a 182 right? Well that might be pretty close to true, but night flying can increase our anxiety levels especially when we discover that the cockpit light controls are not where we thought they were - or worse don't even work (this is why you have a FLITELite right?) Anyway, one of the tried and true learning tools we can use to check ourselves out in an aircraft is a blind cockpit check. Could you pass a blind check in that aircraft your friend was nice enough to loan you? Here is how it works, simply make a short list:
- Dave MCFI