Runway lights at night
3 min read

I viewed a recent video production on a popular general aviation website that portrayed two pilots arriving at an airport (straight-in), in the northeastern U.S. in VFR conditions at about dusk. The airport was in a long, narrow valley that was quickly losing what available light there was left in the western sky, and was thus in shadow. These two pilots, as they flew northwestward up the valley, were utilizing VFR procedures to navigate by, and they relied strictly on visual clues to avoid the surrounding terrain.

Runway lights at night

How much can you really see at night? Enough?

However, in the waning light, they flew precariously close to hilltops that they just couldn’t see until it was almost too late to avoid them. They finally arrived at a point a where they could clearly see the runway’s VASI lights, and at that point they knew they were well below the glideslope of the runway they were approaching. They then leveled off until they were correctly aligned with the vertical slope. The rest of the approach to touchdown was normal. This brings up a few questions.

Instrument pilots use, of course, IFR enroute procedures and instrument approach charts to keep them at safe altitudes and distances from obstacles and terrain. Before I obtained an instrument rating and began using these IFR charts, I, too, relied primarily on visual cues; I never paid a lot of attention to actual geodetic elevations of obstacles and terrain – only my relative and perspective height above and distance from them at the time. I never gave the “Maximum Elevation Figures” on my VFR charts their due respect and accorded pertinence. This type of “feel-as-you-go” operation is fine in good, daytime visibility. But in darkness or reduced visibilities, it can quickly lead to disaster. Simply said, when the visibility goes down, you need a better plan. So, my questions are these:

  • For those of you who are not instrument rated and do not utilize published minimum safe altitudes during the departure, enroute, and approach phases of flight that are provided on instrument charts, what procedures do you use that will keep you and yours safe when the visibilities are reduced – either because of weather or darkness?
  • How much emphasis did your instructors and flight examiners give to safe operations in reduced visibilities, and what policies and procedures have you adopted informally that will ensure adequate clearance of obstacles and terrain when you do not have such information in the cockpit with you?
  • What advice would you give to other VFR-only pilots who may not have GPS terrain information available?
  • If all you have is a VFR chart, what method do you use to stay safe when flying into an unfamiliar airport in periods of reduced visibility?

I invite each one of you to submit your recommendation on how you would approach the depicted airport (GBR, center of chart below) for the first time in your life when the winds are from 300 degrees at 20 knots gusting to 30, the ceiling is reported at 2,300 broken with a visibility of 3 statute miles in intermittent snow showers, the temperature at the airport is minus 5 degrees C. In this scenario, you are approaching from the southwest on a VFR flight in a semi-high performance airplane such as a Cessna 182. Your airplane is 300 pounds below maximum takeoff weight. Your GPS is out of service. You are not instrument rated, and you have only a VFR chart at your disposal.

GBR sectional

Click on image for full size

After you’ve decided on a plan, utilize the IFR chart below to the same airport to see if your arrival plan was as conservative as the FAA’s instrument arrival procedure. It may give you cause to consider adopting and sticking to some standard operating procedures of your own.


Add your comment below.

Dave Sandidge
21 replies
  1. David Megginson
    David Megginson says:

    “What advice would you give to other VFR-only pilots who may not have GPS terrain information available?”

    If you have CAVOK and daylight, fly as usual; if you have low vis and/or darkness, don’t fly below 500 ft above the highest obstruction 3 miles on either side of your route until you’re lined up for your approach (if the obstructions are well lit, like city skyscrapers, then disregard in darkness with good vis).

    I used to draw a course line in pencil on my VNC (sectional), then go over every high tower or terrain 3 miles on either side using a highlighter.

    • Dave Sandidge
      Dave Sandidge says:

      Good advice, David. I think we’d all be amazed at the number of pilots who, without serious consideration, would not even recognize that a VOR with the word ‘mountain’ in its name is probably sitting on high terrain – as in MOUNTAIN… All it takes is one close call to make a believer out of anyone.

  2. Duane
    Duane says:

    My plan is to reject the limitations placed on the approach by the author here, and therefore I’d reject the approach itself.

    1) “The GPS” is said to be out of service … in my humble opinion there is no reasonable excuse to let a single point failure be the end of your technology-assisted night approach to landing. Given the extreme cheapness of alternative means of GPS navigation, including portable hand held aviation navigators, pad computers, and smart phones all of which are easily and cheaply equipped with color-coded terrain guidance, there’s no reason to make this approach sans GPS. Really, seriously, get a grip … tech is too easy and cheap and ubiquitous to ever be 100% dependent on a single panel-mounted navigator.

    2) I generally avoid night flights period, and I simply refuse to do a night VFR approach to an unfamiliar airport in an unlighted area with surrounding high terrain unless I am amply equipped with terrain tech as in 1) above. And even then I wouldn’t PLAN such an arrival .. it would have to be an unplanned arrival as in ….

    3) If one is caught in an unplanned situation (delayed arrival at destination, or mechanical, fuel, or other issues that require an immediate landing at an alternative destination) and if I were lacking the terrain tech (really? I am sorry, but again, see Point #1) above … then the safest way to approach such a landing is to approach at a very high altitude (well above any terrain within 5 miles of the runway) and do an overhead circling descent to the runway, keeping the lighted runway in sight at all times. All VFR pilots need to be capable of executing a tight spiral descent while maintaining full control of the aircraft … it’s an essential VFR flight skill.

  3. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    It looks like go up the freeway and turn right at Craryville and follow the road into GBR. If the visibility is bad enough that you can’t do that then back to the freeway and go somewhere else. VFR flying should be exactly that. You can either see good enough or you can’t; no in betweens. The speed of the airplane is also a consideration. The 182 is about the fastest airplane I would try that in, and then I would have it slowed down. Anything faster should probably be going IFR.

    • Dave Sandidge
      Dave Sandidge says:

      Some good comments here concerning these questions. Perhaps the primary factor is simply to have a plan. Study the terrain and unique features of the approach beforehand and have some type of plan. Be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. And as Stephen has mentioned above, set limits – definite numbers that you will not exceed when it comes to ceilings and visibilities. That being the case, you’ll need an escape plan. I think this would be considered good risk management.

      It just so happens that I made a VFR approach to this airport many years ago in a Baron 58. The weather was barely VFR, and I almost got caught with my proverbial pants down. It made a big impression on me and taught me a lesson I never forgot. David Megginson has some very good advice on that subject. (see above.)

  4. George Haeh
    George Haeh says:

    A 2300′ ceiling over a 739′ airport elevation puts the clouds at 3000 ASL = the 30 shown on that segment on the VFR chart.

    I’d come up the valley from the South where the terrain is 800′ lower, then fly a circuit. At night forget it for a first trip in.

    • Dave Sandidge
      Dave Sandidge says:

      I’m with you, George. Barely doable in the daytime; no way I’d try it at night. I believe this example is safe only while contained within the stated IFR procedures. I would use them even if I were VFR at the time.

  5. Ed
    Ed says:

    Here’s an example of how I handled this on an actual flight.

    Flying from Chicago area (C77) to Savannah, GA (KSAV) VFR over Thanksgiving in a PA22-150 taildragger. Plan was 3 hops, with fuel/bathroom stops in Paoli, IN (I42) and Dalton, GA (KDNN). Flight would have been all in daylight if weather cooperated.

    Well, there were low ceilings & fog in Chicago until 11am, so I got a late start. Landed in Dalton as the sun was setting. By the time I taxied to the pumps, it was pitch black.

    I remembered seeing a lot of yellow and red terrain on the GPS as I approached Dalton, so I knew there was terrain in the area, but now that it was completely dark, there was no way to see-and-avoid anything.

    So, I checked the METARs and TAFs for the last leg from KDNN to KSAV, which showed OVC070 or higher along the whole route. Then, I pulled up the approach plates for KDNN on my smartphone and checked the “Takeoff Minimums and Obstacle Departure Procedures” section in the back. Here’s what it said:

    “Rwy 14, climb on heading between 112° clockwise to 320° from DER, or minimum climb of 406′ per NM to 5400 for all other courses.”

    So, I hopped into the plane, departed on RWY14, and climbed on a heading of 140 degrees up to 5500, watching the RED and YELLOW terrain markings just off my left wing slowly fade away off the GPS display. The rest of the flight to KSAV was smooth and relaxing.

    So, my suggestion to anyone flying anywhere, especially night VFR, is to use an aviation app, either a free one like Avare or a paid one like Garmin Pilot, and load it up with all the VFR and IFR charts and publications you can fit. You never know when access to that information will get you out of a tough spot.

    • Dave Sandidge
      Dave Sandidge says:

      Ed, yes, yes, yes!! ODPs, they’re life savers sure enough. There was an article recently in AOPA magazine on this very subject. The long and short of this…? HAVE A PLAN. Don’t just launch into the sky willy-nilly. Thanks.

  6. Costas Sourelis
    Costas Sourelis says:

    My background: PPL, SEP, Europe, 80 hrs.

    In the conditions, I would instead follow that big river and land at Kingston-Ulster.

    Hypothetically, if GBR were the only option available, I would circle the elevated region and approach from its east side, i.e., Sharon-Sallisbury-North Canaan.
    Airport elevation is ~700 so the reported ceiling puts the cloud base at ~3000ft MSL, equal to the GBR quadrant’s MEF and almost equal to the mountain SW of GBR. The mountain gets lower to the north, where the IFR approach overflies it, but I would feel safer not needing to count on that.

    Realistically, I wouldn’t have started the flight in the first place: the conditions would have shown up in TAFs and they are over my personal limits.

    I would be really interested to hear what more experienced pilots think of the above.

  7. Liad b
    Liad b says:

    Horrible situation for a VFR pilot.
    I would make sure ALL of my backup smart devices are on and tracking terrain, then ask ATC to get me the hell out of there and into VMC. If that’s not an option because in addition to poor planning I am also running out of fuel, then maybe I should realize that flying is simply not for me. Undisciplined people should not be pilots.

  8. Dave Sandidge
    Dave Sandidge says:

    Costas and Liad, smart moves on both counts. When I was younger I probably would have tried it VFR. ( I actually did and almost busted my ___.) Now that God has allowed me to live through all those stupid things I did in airplanes many moons ago and gain some wisdom, there’s no way I would try this approach while flying under VFR. I just wouldn’t do it. If you have a plan and stick to it, I suppose you could be successful. But I would not try it anymore. I’d go under IFR in a single-engine airplane ONLY if I had enough ceiling to maneuver to a successful landing in case the engine quit.

  9. Allyn
    Allyn says:

    Seriously? Winds, darkness, snow, and no GPS VFR at an unfamiliar airport? Nope. Not going there.Wouldn’t even take off to head that way. I don’t think I remember any instruction in this because I would have just discounted any conversation that would have put me in a place to possibly kiss my plane goodbye. Nope!

  10. Bob Bickel
    Bob Bickel says:

    It looked like a great day to divert!
    Ceiling low, Mountains high and a possible icing condition with snow at -5C

    • Dave Sandidge
      Dave Sandidge says:

      Bob and Allyn,

      I wholeheartedly agree. A successful approach is questionable in the daytime under these conditions (assuming they hold and don’t get even worse). Add darkness to the equation and you end up with an excellent chance of breaking your airplane and ruining your day. Under IFR with a high-performance, known-ice, multi-engine airplane, I would say an experienced pilot would have little trouble making the approach to minimums – assuming everything (GPS included) is working correctly. However, what would you do after you broke out and saw the runway? A circling approach is not authorized, and the winds are too strong to land downwind. Everything in this procedure under these conditions is screaming, “Heck NO, I won’t go!!” And the procedure is not authorized at night. I’m with you; save it for another day.

  11. Dave Sandidge
    Dave Sandidge says:

    An erratum:

    I should have been more specific when I mentioned high performance above. Circling is authorized for category A and B airplanes – some of which would meet the ‘high-performance’ requirements.

  12. Lloyd
    Lloyd says:

    I fly GA only for the freedom of flight. If the flight doesnt offer enjoyment, I won’t go and this described flight is a nightmare to me. The TAF would have kept me safely on the ground.

  13. David Ward Sandidge
    David Ward Sandidge says:

    Lloyd, there was a period, many years ago when I was a youngster, when my primary F.I. would often tell me: “If you enjoy flying, if you really love it, don’t do it for a living.” I think about his words, and I sometimes wish I had heeded them. But alas, I did not. So now I frequently have to judge the wisdom of executing a flight in weather which many would call “over the line”, so far as safety and flyability are concerned, against the cost of a new refrigerator. For me, and those also in my position, it is not a matter of “not offering enjoyment” that will keep us grounded. But rather, it is an empirically derived equation that will answer the question of whether or not we can make the flight in question; and the factors of the equations arrive from all over the spectrum… It is cold and impersonal. If the sum is in the ‘plus’ column, we go. If it is not, we don’t go. That is how a true professional pilot operates; he has to know when to call it day and go home to attempt to repair the fridge he already has.

    • Lloyd
      Lloyd says:

      David, I do know where you are in this flying business. My primary CFI actually told me 40 odd years ago, if you don’t have a use for flying, you should probably give it up. He has gone on to owning a FBO, charter flights, and agricultural aviation, with somewhere north of 30,000 hours. I went on to getting my private pilot, but did quit for 40 years and 3 months. One day, he offered to get me back in the air. I took him up on the offer and 3 years ago, soloed for the second time. I am by no means an accomplished pilot, but I manage to get airborne a couple of times each month and enjoy the challenge. So much has changed since I first started, so it’s a real learning experience every time I go up. But, what I do know is my limitations and the scenario you described, is way beyond anything I would even consider. At 71 years, I am satisfied being able to fly on average days, but I also know when to park it.

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