I do enjoy flying at night – the dimly lit flight deck, a view of the stars above and passing over brightly lit cities below. It feels a lot more relaxed than the busy atmosphere in the cabin sometimes. It does come with its own challenges though – for example, attempting to eat a meal whilst struggling to get the lighting correct so you can maintain your night vision and still eat comfortably without loosing the prongs of your plastic fork somewhere in your meal (or in your stomach).
“Eat comfortably without loosing the prongs of your plastic fork somewhere in your meal (or in your stomach).”
Other challenges can be identified by those that drive at night – taxying at night presents similar challenges. It is more difficult to judge distance and speed, and harder to see other aircraft and obstacles around you. Then, in the air we are subject to visual illusions. Bright lights on an object makes it appear closer than it may actually be, and so again this presents a challenge when judging distance. The most common or well known illusion is probably the ‘black hole’ approach. This is where there’s very little light around a runway other than the runway lights and the horizon may be difficult to discern. Consequently, pilots can diverge from the approach path if reference to instruments is not maintained. From personal experience, this hasn’t been an issue, as we don’t conduct visual approaches at night, and always refer to our instruments. However, this comes into play during the landing phase, which can make the landing flare difficult to judge resulting in a firmer (albeit still safe) touch down!
Illusions aside, a danger that is often present at night are lasers. I feel quite strongly about this, as I, along with my colleagues in the flight deck have been victims of this many times. This is when lasers are pointed at aircraft, from the ground and it often occurs at critical stages of flight such as take-off, approach and landing. These stages of flight are of a high work load and demanding and the last thing any pilot would want is a laser being pointed at them, causing distraction and possibly, eye damage. In the worst-case this can have catastrophic consequences. This article expands on these points well. It is a criminal offence and in many countries, it will be met with fines and imprisonment.
On a lighter note, there are prettier things in the air than lasers, such as viewing the stars, planets, and even space stations. I’ll leave you with this photo that I took recently whilst in cruise over Rome.