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Optical Illusions

by Flight Learnings

in Human Factors

Of the senses, vision is the most important for safe flight.  However, various terrain features and atmospheric conditions can create optical illusions. These illusions are primarily associated with landing. Since pilots must transition from reliance on instruments to visual cues outside the flight deck for landing at the end of an instrument approach, it is imperative they be aware of the potential problems associated with these illusions, and take appropriate corrective action. The major illusions leading to landing errors are described below.

Runway Width Illusion

A narrower-than-usual runway can create an illusion the aircraft is at a higher altitude than it actually is, especially when runway length-to-width relationships are comparable. [Figure 1-9A] The pilot who does not recognize this illusion will fly a lower approach, with the risk of striking objects along the approach path or landing short. A wider-than-usual runway can have the opposite effect, with the risk of leveling out high and landing hard, or overshooting the runway.

Runway and Terrain Slopes Illusion

An upsloping runway, upsloping terrain, or both, can create an illusion the aircraft is at a higher altitude than it actually is. [Figure 1-9B] The pilot who does not recognize this illusion will fly a lower approach. Down sloping runways and down sloping approach terrain can have the opposite effect.

Featureless Terrain Illusion

An absence of surrounding ground features, as in an over water approach, over darkened areas, or terrain made featureless by snow, can create an illusion the aircraft is at a higher altitude than it actually is. This illusion, sometimes referred to as the “black hole approach,” causes pilots to fly a lower approach than is desired.

Water Refraction

Rain on the windscreen can create an illusion of being at a higher altitude due to the horizon appearing lower than it is.  This can result in the pilot flying a lower approach.


Atmospheric haze can create an illusion of being at a greater distance and height from the runway. As a result, the pilot will have a tendency to be low on the approach. Conversely, extremely clear air (clear bright conditions of a high attitude airport) can give the pilot the illusion of being closer than he or she actually is, resulting in a high approach, which may result in an overshoot or go around. The diffusion of light due to water particles on the windshield can adversely affect depth perception. The lights and terrain features normally used to gauge height during landing become less effective for the pilot.


Flying into fog can create an illusion of pitching up. Pilots who do not recognize this illusion will often steepen the approach quite abruptly.

Ground Lighting Illusions

Lights along a straight path, such as a road or lights on moving trains, can be mistaken for runway and approach lights. Bright runway and approach lighting systems, especially where few lights illuminate the surrounding terrain, may create the illusion of less distance to the runway. The pilot who does not recognize this illusion will often fly a higher approach.

Figure 1-9. Runway Width and Slope Illusions.

Figure 1-9. Runway Width and Slope Illusions.

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