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Night Flight

Friday evening I flew an hour of goggle time. I was at day 57 of the 60-day period, after which my currency would have expired. The next evening, I got an hour unaided in a Cessna.

NVGs are useful. I wouldn’t dream of attempting terrain flight, or landing in any but a perfectly clear well-marked area, without them. At the same time, they are an uncomfortable combination of unpleasantly heavy and way too small. After a very short while, wearing them becomes a literal pain in the neck: even with a counterweight bag to keep your head’s CG roughly where it should be, they push the moment of inertia out several inches. Combined with the tiny viewing area of the goggles, which forces you to be constantly moving your entire head around to maintain situational awareness, simple fatigue sets in very quickly.

Flying unaided is much more physically comfortable, and much prettier. Cities are a soft sodium yellow, highways are ribbons of red and white, and manmade landmarks are always strikingly lit. At the same time, navigation is significantly more challenging. For example, you wouldn’t think that a runway would be hard to find, particularly at night: it’s a perfectly straight line miles long with distinctive lighting along both edges. You’d be wrong: runways are tricky, and prone to sneaking up on you. It’s actually usually easier to find the airport from the taxiway lighting and then infer the position of the runway until you can see it directly, which usually happens on short final, about 30 seconds before landing.

The ideal, if I could invent any hypothetical technology for flying at night, would be a projected head-up display on every window showing the outside world as seen through a system of night vision sensors mounted on the aircraft’s body. I hear the Apache people actually have something like a primitive version of this, though I’ve never had a chance to play with one. I suspect that I’ll have to either wait quite a long time before such a system becomes commercially available, or invent it myself. It’s one idea for what to do with myself after the Army, at least.

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