RFT 142: Night Vision

December 7, 2017

From the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (FAA-H-8083-25B):

It is estimated that once fully adapted to darkness, the rods are 10,000 times more sensitive to light than the cones, making them the primary receptors for night vision. Since the cones are concentrated near the fovea, the rods are also responsible for much of the peripheral vision. The concentration of cones in the fovea can make a night blindspot in the center of the field of vision.To see an object clearly at night, the pilot must expose the rods to the image.This can be done by looking 5° to10° off center of the object to be seen.This can be tried in a dim light in a darkened room. When looking directly at the light, it dims or disappears altogether. When looking slightly off center, it becomes clearer and brighter.

When looking directly at an object, the image is focused mainly on the fovea, where detail is best seen. At night, the ability to see an object in the center of the visual field is reduced as the cones lose much of their sensitivity and the rods become more sensitive. Looking off center can help compensate for this night blind spot. Along with the loss of sharpness (acuity) and color at night, depth perception and judgment of size may be lost. 

Dark adaptation is the adjustment of the human eye to a dark environment. That adjustment takes longer depending on the amount of light in the environment that a person has just left. Moving from a bright room into a dark one takes longer than moving from a dim room and going into a dark one.

While the cones adapt rapidly to changes in light intensities, the rods take much longer. Walking from bright sunlight into a dark movie theater is an example of this dark adaptation period experience. The rods can take approximately 30 minutes to fully adapt to darkness. A bright light, however, can completely destroy night adaptation, leaving night vision severely compromised while the adaptation process is repeated.

Scanning techniques are very important in identifying objects at night. To scan effectively, pilots must look from right to left or left to right. They should begin scanning at the greatest distance an object can be perceived (top) and move inward toward the position of the aircraft (bottom). For each stop, an area approximately 30° wide should be scanned. The duration of each stop is based on the degree of detail that is required, but no stop should last longer than 2 to 3 seconds. When moving from one viewing point to the next, pilots should overlap the previous field of view by 10°. 

Off-center viewing is another type of scan that pilots can use during night flying. It is a technique that requires an object be viewed by looking 10° above, below, or to either side of the object.  In this manner, the peripheral vision can maintain contact with an object.

With off-center vision, the images of an object viewed longer than 2 to 3 seconds will disappear. This occurs because the rods reach a photochemical equilibrium that prevents any further response until the scene changes. This produces a potentially unsafe operating condition. To overcome this night vision limitation, pilots must be aware of the phenomenon and avoid viewing an object for longer than 2 or 3 seconds. The peripheral field of vision will continue to pick up the object when the eyes are shifted from one off- center point to another.

Several things can be done to help with the dark adaptation process and to keep the eyes adapted to darkness. Some of the steps pilots and flight crews can take to protect their night vision are described in the following paragraphs.

If, during the flight ,any high intensity lighting areas are encountered, attempt to turn the aircraft away and fly in the periphery of the lighted area.This will not expose the eyes to such a large amount of light all at once. If possible, plan your route to avoid direct over flight to built-up, brightly lit areas.

Flight deck lighting should be kept as low as possible so that the light does not monopolize night vision. After reaching the desired flight altitude, pilots should allow time to adjust to the flight conditions.This includes readjustment of instrument lights and orientation to outside references. During the adjustment period, night vision should continue to improve until optimum night adaptation is achieved. When it is necessary to read maps, charts, and checklists, use a dim white light flashlight and avoid shining it in your or any other crew member’s eyes.

Often time, pilots have no say in how airfield operations are handled, but listed below are some precautions that can be taken to make night flying safer and help protect night vision.

•Airfield lighting should be reduced to the lowest usable intensity.

•Maintenance personnel should practice light discipline with headlights and flashlights.

•Position the aircraft at a part of the airfield where the least amount of lighting exists.

If a night flight is scheduled, pilots and crewmembers should wear neutral density (N-15) sunglasses or equivalent filter lenses when exposed to bright sunlight. This precaution increases the rate of dark adaptation at night and improves night visual sensitivity.

Unaided night vision depends on optimum function and sensitivity oftherods of the retina. Lack of oxygen to the rods (hypoxia) significantly reduces their sensitivity. Sharp clear vision(with the best being equal to 20–20 vision) requires significant oxygen especially at night. Without supplemental oxygen, an individual’s night vision declines measurably at pressure altitudes above 4,000 feet. As altitude increases, the available oxygen decreases, degrading night vision. Compounding the problem is fatigue, which minimizes physiological well being. Adding fatigue to high altitude exposure is a recipe for disaster. In fact, if flying at night at an altitude of 12,000 feet, the pilot may actually see elements of his orher normal vision missing or not in focus. Missing visual elements resemble the missing pixels in a digital image while unfocused vision is washed out.

For the pilot suffering the effects of hypoxia, a simple descent to a lower altitude may not be sufficient to reestablish vision. For example, a climb from 8,000 feet to 12,000 feet for 30 minutes does not mean a descent to 8,000 feet will rectify the problem. Visual acuity may not be regained for over an hour. Thus, it is important to remember, altitude and fatigue have a profound effect on a pilot’s ability to see.

•Select approach and departure routes that avoid highways and residential areas where illumination can impair night vision.

Night flight can be more fatiguing and stressful than day flight, and many self-imposed stressors can limit night vision. Pilots can control this type of stress by knowing the factors that can cause self-imposed stressors.

 

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