Night Visual Approaches – Deserving of a Backup

You’re in the third hour of a cross-county flight which will push your landing into the night hours.  Your destination is a first time visit and ATC instructions will require a non-standard pattern to the unfamiliar airport.  Or perhaps, arriving at a pilot-controlled airport, the temptation to fly a non-standard arrival is too great due to the lack of activity at this late hour.  Sound realistic or is this something that has happened to you ?

Even if this scenario sounds extreme, everyday pilots are faced with this exact scenario.  Are you prepared?  Visual approaches to airports at night are challenging to say the least.  Couple that with the fact that fatigue is more likely to be a factor at the conclusion of a flight and you’re now in territory deserving of a well-thought out plan.

If you’re flying IFR, this would be the time to execute an instrument approach even in visual conditions (VMC).  While standard practice might be to fly a visual and back it up with an instrument approach, why not opt for the positive lateral guidance and guaranteed obstruction clearance of an instrument approach procedure.  In other words, fly the approach and back it up visually should be the norm.

For VFR pilots, this would be the time to battle temptation and opt for a standard traffic pattern.  Also remember to activate the airport lighting system well in advance and reset the system on downwind to ensure the lights don’t go out while on base or final. While lighting intensities will vary, you can’t go wrong with 7 clicks to activate lights to the highest intensity setting.  And it’s not outside the realm of possibility to have a frequency different from the CTAF to activate runway lights.  You don’t want to find that out while approaching the airport so check the A/FD ahead of time.

The internet provides ample opportunity to view airport diagrams and even satellite imagery to prepare yourself for what you may experience visually while approaching an unfamiliar airport.  Is the runway narrower or wider / shorter or longer than you’re accustom?  Does the runway slope?  What type of approach lighting system will you be seeing when you arrive?  Does the satellite imagery indicate a potential black hole effect?  These are all items to consider when flying to an unfamiliar airport at night.

Keep in mind that while a VASI or PAPI may be visible from 3-5 miles during the day and up to 20 miles or more at night, obstruction clearance is only assured within plus or minus 10 degrees of the runway centerline and up to 4NM from the runway threshold.  In certain circumstances, the safe obstruction clearance area may be reduced due to local limitations, or the VASI or PAPI may be offset from the extended runway centerline. This will be noted in the Airport/ Facility Directory.

Not convinced a backup is in order? Read this edition of NASA’s CALLBACK now – the pros do it.

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It was his first airplane trip at age seven that made Eric decide to become a pilot. "While boarding the airplane, a flight attendant noticed my interest in the flight deck and urged me to go talk to the pilot. I give a lot of credit to that pilot for my career choice." He earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and went on to an airline career. Eric now heads Sporty’s flight school and directs the University of Cincinnati’s Professional Pilot Training Program. In addition, Eric serves as a Captain in Sporty’s corporate flight department.