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Flying in a plane at night puts you right in the heart of darkness. Take a look outside and it’s just a pure black abyss. So how do pilots see at night?

Pilots typically can’t see at night any better than anybody else can. To fly at night, pilots almost always rely on their instrumentation and onboard computer systems. If a pilot must fly without the aid of their instruments, they use city lights, runway lights, and even night-vision goggles.

More often than not, pilots fly using Instrument Flight Rules so they don’t actually have to really be able to see much using their eyes. But if a pilot must fly using Visual Flight Rules, there are some things that pilots can do to make it as easy as possible. In this article, you’ll learn all about everything that pilots do to make nighttime flights not only possible but almost as easy as flying during the day!

More than anything else, we want our readers to be able to read through our posts with confidence. So to make sure we fill you in on how pilots can see at night, we combined our own knowledge and expertise in aviation with the input of other pilots and flight experts. Everything you read has been vetted to ensure you leave with the best information possible.

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Can Pilots See Anything At Night?

If you’ve ever been on a plane during the night or early in the morning, you’ve probably taken a look outside and seen all the city lights around you. Once you take off, the lights below are just about the only thing you can see, and it certainly is a pretty sight. But once you get above the clouds and the plane is swallowed by the darkness all around you, you just look out the windows into a sea of blackness, right?

Well, that’s the exact same thing that pilots see as well. From their vantage point in the cockpit, the pilots can’t see any better into the dark skies than you can. It’s not like driving a car where they can turn on the headlights and the way is illuminated. Once the aircraft is up in the sky, it’s dark everywhere, including below the plane. So lights don’t really do a whole lot to help pilots see.

So to answer the question, pilots can’t really see at night any better than you or I could. But to help them fly the plane, it mostly comes down to using the instruments they have at their disposal. Because you know what can see at night? Sensors! As we go through this article, you’ll learn all about how pilots are able to fly at night and what they use to make that possible.

How Do Pilots See At Night Under IFR And VFR?

Before we get into how pilots see at night under these two different sets of flight rules, it’s important to understand what we’re even talking about here. IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules, which means that the pilots fly the planes using their instruments rather than visually looking out into the world around (and below them). Conversely, VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules. Under VFR, the pilot flies by using their visual reference to the ground and/or horizon.

But let’s take a little deeper look into both IFR and VFR and get a better idea of how pilots are able to fly at night under both conditions.

Flying At Night Under IFR

As you now know that planes being flown under IFR use the plane’s instruments, it more or less becomes a moot point whether the flight is happening at night or in the middle of a sunny day. Sure the takeoff and landing will be a little different  since the pilot will be focusing on the runway lights to see where they’re headed. But once the plane gets airborne, the pilot relies on their instrumentation and communication with Air Traffic Control (ATC) to have a successful flight.

Flying under IFR is far and away more commonplace in the aviation industry than VFR, and it’s how all commercial and passenger jets are flown these days. The plane’s instrumentation — of course combined with modern autopilot systems — make flying at night almost no more difficult for most pilots than flying during the day.

Once the flight is approaching its end, the pilot will continue using their instrumentation but will also start looking outside for the lights along the runway and around the airport to assist in landing. So at this point, flying under IFR is largely the same as flying under VFR, but the bulk of the flight is much simpler with IFR.

Flying At Night Under VFR

Considering that flying under VFR requires that pilots actually use their vision instead of instrumentation, you can imagine how much harder these types of flights are at night. Recall that flying under Visual Flight Rules, the pilot must use the earth and/or the horizon as a visual reference for all of their flying, so it’s important that they’re able to see as well as they can.

To make it even more difficult to fly under VFR at night, these pilots will have very little help from ATC once they are out of controlled airspace. So it’s vital that pilots use everything at their disposal to make the flight as safe as they possibly can.

Is There Anything Pilots Can Do To Help Them See During A Night Flight?

There’s no getting around it — it is going to be tough for a pilot to see at night. It’s dark, lights don’t do much once you’re airborne, and ATC will be of little assistance during the flight. So what can pilots do to help them see a bit better?

Let’s take a quick look at a few of the main ways the pilots flying under VFR can see better at night:

  • Let their eyes adjust — While it will always be hard for a pilot to see at night just due to how dark it is around the plane, giving themselves some extra time for their eyes to adjust will help immensely. Just like if you’re in your bedroom at night and turn the lights off to go to sleep, it seems super dark. A little while later if you’ve stayed up to watch a bit of TV, you will be able to see much better as your eyes have adjusted. Pilots can do the same thing, and give their eyes time to adjust before taking off.
  • Use city lights as a reference — The good thing about light pollution — who would ever think it was a good thing? — is that it produces enough light for pilots to see, even at night. Especially if a pilot is low enough to discern street lights and buildings, flying over a city at night can be far easier than you might think. Just need to be extra careful of other air traffic!
  • Use night vision goggles — If there are no city lights around or anything at all for a pilot to see, the only option might be night vision goggles. While these are likely too expensive for your average private pilot to invest in, they are essential for safe flights under VFR in remote areas of the country. These goggles help your vision go from total darkness to a well-defined and well-lit field of view in an instant.

What Are The Lights On The Plane Actually For?

If you ever look up into the night sky in any major city or anywhere near an airport, it probably won’t take long for you to spot an airplane flying overhead. Between the continuous lights you see moving across the sky and the flashing strobe light(s) on each plane, it’s easy to spot one flying  against the backdrop of the night sky.

But if the lights don’t really help a pilot fly, what are they really for? There are three main sets of lights on an airplane worth taking a quick look at. They are as follows:

  • Headlights — Just like the headlights on your car or motorcycle, the forward-facing lights on a plane help the pilot see at night. But these lights are only really useful while the plane is grounded and the pilot is driving along the runway/taxiway at the airport. Up in the air, headlights don’t do much of anything to help a pilot see.
  • Anti-Collision Light — This is that flashing light that you can see on planes flying overhead. The red or white flashing light is there to help other pilots see your plane, not to help you see anything!
  • Position Lights — Similar to the anti-collision lights, position lights are there to help other planes and pilots see your plane better. Located at the ends of the wings, these lights help other pilots get an idea of what direction you’re flying. The left wing has a red light and the right wing has a green light. These colors help indicate to other pilots which direction you’re flying and which way you’re facing to help avoid collisions.