How Do Pilots See At Night?

Sitting in the backseat of an airplane as it starts at night provides some lovely lighted views before the aircraft is enveloped in the pitch-black night. So how do the pilots see at night if the passengers cannot see anything out of the windows?

Radar and air traffic controllers serve as the pilot’s eyes at night for aircraft flying at great altitudes. Street lights, night vision equipment, and landing lights all aid pilots in seeing outside their cockpits during low-altitude flights. At all other times, flying is done with the aid of cockpit instruments.

IFR and VFR are the two categories under which flights fall, and the pilot’s visibility requirements will depend on which category they are flying under. Many of you may find this a little unsettling, however, it is a systematic procedure that takes place regularly throughout the world.

Let’s examine how night vision works for pilots and whether this is necessary.How Do Pilots See At Night

How Do Pilots See At Night?

Generally speaking, no one can see at night better than a pilot. Pilots most often rely on their instruments and integrated computer systems when flying at night. A pilot may employ runway lights, city lights, or even night-vision goggles if they are forced to fly without the use of their instruments.

Most of the time, when using instrument flight rules, pilots can fly without having to use their eyes very much. However, there are several things that pilots may do to make it as simple as possible if they must use Visual Flight Rules. This essay will teach you everything a pilot does to make midnight flights not only feasible but also practically as simple as daytime flights.

If you’ve ever flown at night or in the early morning, you’ve probably looked out the window and noticed all of the city lights in the area. The lights thus far are essentially the only thing you see when you lift off, and it is a beautiful sight. 

You just stare out the windows at a sea of darkness once you’re just above clouds and the airplane is engulfed in darkness, isn’t that right?

That is exactly what pilots perceive as well. The pilots’ view of the night sky from their position in the cockpit is no better than yours. It’s not like driving a vehicle that allows them to turn on the headlights, illuminating the path. 

Once the plane is in the air, the ground below it is completely dark. Therefore, lights don’t do anything to aid pilots in seeing.

So, to answer your question, no, pilots aren’t any better at seeing at night than either you or I am. However, employing the tools at their disposal is largely what will enable them to fly the aircraft.

You understand what can see at night, right? Sensors! You’ll discover how pilots are capable of flying at nighttime and what equipment they utilize as we proceed through this essay.

How Do IFR and VFR Pilots See At Night?

It’s crucial to grasp what we’re even talking about here before we can discuss how pilots see at nighttime under such two distinct sets of flight regulations. IFR refers to Instrument Flight Rules, which essentially means that pilots must use their instruments to control their aircraft rather than using their visual senses to observe their surroundings. VFR refers to visual flight rules in contrast. When flying in visual flight rules, the pilot keeps their eyes fixed on the horizon or the ground.

To better understand how pilots are allowed to fly at night both in IFR and VFR situations, let’s dig a little more into both of them.

IFR Night Flight Procedures:

It more or less becomes irrelevant whether the flight is taking place at night or during the midst of a sunny day because you now know that aircraft is allowed to fly under IFR use the aircraft’s instruments. 

Undoubtedly, the departure and landing will change a little because the pilot will be paying close attention to the landing lights to determine their course. 

However, once the aircraft is in the air, the pilot must rely on their instruments and ATC communication with Air Traffic Control to conduct a safe flight.

Nowadays, all passenger and commercial jets are flown using IFR, which is far more commonplace than VFR in the aviation industry. Flying at night is essentially no more challenging for most pilots than flying in the daytime thanks to the aircraft’s instrumentation, which is of course merged with modern autopilot systems.

As the flight nears its conclusion, the pilot will proceed to use his or her instruments, in addition, to start scanning the outside for lights on the runway and in the area of the airport to aid in landing. 

At this spot, trying to fly under IFR is roughly equivalent to flying under Visual flight rules, but IFR makes the majority of the flight much simpler.

VFR Night Flight Procedures:

You can understand how much more difficult VFR flights are at night, given that pilots must rely on their sight instead of instruments. When operating under VFR, the pilot is expected to rely solely on visual cues, such as the ground and/or the horizon, for all aspects of flight.

Once outside of restricted airspace, ATC is unable to provide much assistance, making it that much more challenging for these pilots to fly under Visual flight rules at night. Therefore, pilots must do everything in their power to ensure the safety of their flights.

Preparing the Eyesight of Pilots for Flights at Night:

When planning a night flight, pilots should take special care to have the best possible night vision. Our eyes require some time to adjust to the darkness after leaving a bright area like an office or hangar.

Human eyes require around 30 minutes to adjust to total darkness, so the duration it took us to finish our coffee was just right.

Once in the cockpit, pilots will turn on only the lights they need, use red lights because white light damages night vision, and try to keep their eyes off the glaring airfield and airport lights as much as possible during taxiing and takeoff.

To Fly At Night, Planes Need Their Lights On:

Under 14CFR 91.205(c), the FAA requires all aircraft to have the following operational lights to fly VFR at night:

Color Choice: Red or White Flashing Position Lights with Anti-Collision Technology

You can easily spot a plane flying through the night thanks to the anti-collision light. Pilots can use this flashing beacon to locate other planes by keeping an eye on its movement out of the corner of their eyes.

Position lights are a great aid in determining the flight path of other aircraft. When it comes to position lights, every plane is set up the same way:

With only a glance, a pilot can tell whether or not the other plane is heading straight for them, or if they are on a path to merge. When a pilot knows the other plane’s heading, he or she may keep their craft at a safe distance.

Flying at night is easier because of city lights:

Even small cities and towns emit an incredible quantity of light pollution. Pilots have an easier time navigating and flying a plane over populated areas.

Overflying a city makes it easy for pilots to tell which direction is up and to navigate using landmarks like highways and buildings.

But pilots flying around a city typically means many aircraft in the same area, so it’s crucial that they always know where they are, keep a sharp eye out for other aircraft lights, and keep in constant contact with air traffic control.

Nighttime flying within a city is as simple as a daytime flight. The real trouble begins when pilots venture into unlit regions of the country.

Nighttime flight with the aid of night vision goggles

Pilots have two alternatives while operating in the dark and lonely sections of the country: they can either rely on their instruments alone or they can resort to visual cues.

Put on your night vision goggles:

Night vision goggles (NVGs) are simply out of reach of the price and acquisition for pilots who just ride about the sky in their private aircraft and helicopters, therefore they must fly by referring to their instruments.

Indeed, night vision goggles do what their name implies. Miniature binocular-like devices that can be mounted to a pilot’s helmet. They absorb the ambient light of night and boost it, displaying a live image in both eyepieces so the pilot may keep flying in either direction their head is turned.

New Vision Goggles (NVGs) are a game-changer for professional pilots flying missions including law enforcement and medical evacuation. I’ve flown at night in unpopulated areas of the country without using them and you won’t believe the difference until you watch the video below. – Find the lost hikers if you can!

Newer versions of night vision goggles (NVGs) employ white phosphor lenses, which provide higher clarity and contrast than their green predecessors.

Nighttime Flight with Optimised Vision:

Very similar to traditional night vision goggles, but built inside the aircraft itself, this vision system makes use of an infrared sensor to peek into the darkness. The pilots can see the live feed on their screens or in their Heads-Up Displays (HUD).


As for night vision, what pilots need to see depends heavily on the type of trip they are taking. Airlines don’t need pilots to be able to see again until they’re on final descent for landing, which is far after the landing gear has been lifted. Visibility is a must for pilots operating under visual flight rules, but with little eye training and flying in well-lit locations, any pilot should be able to fly safely.

The trouble starts when the pilot is confronted by an inky black sky after the city lights have faded.

To land an aeroplane safely, the pilot must rely solely on instruments or an assisted vision system. Thus, we trust that your question about how pilots see at night has been satisfactorily answered.

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