Seeing Clearly, Even at Night

I think one of the coolest gadgets to ever come along has got to be night vision goggles. I had my first exposure, actually my only exposure, to these marvels during my tanker testing days.

Night vision goggles provide a means of seeing in the dark. Battery operated and looking much like binoculars, the dark of night suddenly becomes alive in an array of greens when they are turned on. Without getting into all the specifics about the technology of these devices, suffice it to say that image-intensifying cathodes work to increase the illumination in low ambient light environments.


For soldiers, law enforcement and hunters, moonless nights light up to give a very clear view of the area. Military aircraft traveling under the cloak of night may also require night vision operation and the pilots wear devices under certain conditions of engagement. Cockpit panels are dimmed so as not to ‘bloom’ when the pilot dons his night vision attire. Blooming occurs when a bright light strikes the goggles. Yes, it gives you a headache in addition to blinding you.

For the receiving aircraft approaching the rear of the refueling tanker, there are a series of stoplights that provide visual cues to the receiver as it lines up for receiving fuel. The lights are not only colored, but are positioned so that an aircraft under night vision orders may still be able to view the cues.

Yes, It's refueling during a turn.

For the refueling tanker that I worked on, new lighting had been tested with various pilots to get the right hue for daylight conditions with the receiver facing the sun and with the lights facing the sun. It turned out to be relatively easy. We then had to set the luminance for night refueling for regular and night vision.

A darkened hangar, its walls, ceiling and floor painted black, provided the test environment. The lights hung from scaffolding in a configuration similar to what would be experienced on the real tanker. There were a number of folks present for the test in addition to the test subjects. Lighting engineers, human factors engineers, technicians and interested by-standers filled the hangar with lots of chatter. Electrical lines draped along the floor and snaked up the scaffolding. There was a lot of ‘stuff’ waiting to injure us.

The relationship between the lighting and the receiving aircraft was figured out and the test subjects, a couple of actual fighter jet pilots, stood at predefined spots for the test. The concrete floor was marked for approach and refueling positions. The lights were dimmed, a pilot donned the goggles, we all yelled ‘Quiet’ and the lighting was turned on, luminance adjusted and the pilot signaled when the light was ‘perfect’ to him. Moving to the next spot was done in the dark with very small flashlights our only illumination.

The hangar was so dark, and, to add to our scenario, we tested late at night. Even the parking lot lights outside were doused for our test. My ability to adjust to this amount darkness was limited and while I could hear voices and tell who was next to me, I felt uncomfortable. During a break in the action, I tried the night vision goggles. I couldn’t believe how this pitch-dark hangar came to life. Birds nesting in the rafters that chirped and chattered unseen now sprung to life. The various people in attendance at the test were likewise out in the open. I don’t know what I was expecting, but to see almost clear as day wasn’t it. I needed a pair of my own.

Think of it, the lights go out in the middle of the night due to a storm and instead of fumbling around for a flashlight, which no doubt has dead batteries, or a candle and a lighter, which is also out of fuel, you grab your trusty night vision goggles off the night stand. These received a fresh set of batteries with every weather warning. Now you can see the dog in front of your feet, the shoes left out in the middle of the floor and that dining room chair someone left out away from the table. No more stubbed toes or banged knees at this house.

Of course there is one alternative and that is to roll over in the bed, bury yourself under the covers and wait for morning light.


About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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