Owning the Night

For years, the police service has directly benefited from the technology and equipment developed by the United States military. Forward looking infra-red (FLIR), global positioning systems and Kevlar (bullet resistant vests) are just some examples of technology, largely developed and "battle tested" by the military that was adapted and used successfully in police work. The latest and greatest technological leap is the equipping of police aviators with night vision goggles (NVG) that will greatly enhance mission effectiveness and flight safety.


Night vision goggles came into widespread use during the Vietnam War, and we are now into several "generations" of development. The earlier goggles were bulky, and had an extremely limited field of view. The weight and size of these goggles caused aviators to develop severe headaches and become very fatigued rather quickly. Obviously, this affected operational use. Subsequent generations have become much smaller, more comfortable and have increased field of view. It is hoped that future development will give an even better field of view and enhance the clarity of the images seen. Past problems, such as the "washout" of your vision if you looked directly at a bright light, have been eliminated. Another step in their more mainstream use is the fact that NVGs have become reasonably affordable for many agencies. The introduction of NVGs is not limited to aviation; their use has extended to ground operations in tactical situations and routine patrol use.

How it works

Can we really see at night? The answer is, "yes." With the proper night-vision equipment, you can see a person standing over 200 yards away on a moonless, cloudy night! Night vision can work in two very different ways, depending on the technology used. The most common method used by night vision goggles is that light, often light that is not visible to the naked eye, is amplified and makes the scene "brighter." If it was truly possible to have a completely darkened room, devoid of all forms of light, the goggles would not work. The other technology used in NVGs is to expand the visible spectrum into the infrared range, making it possible to see the heat emitted from an object. On aircraft, these devices are commonly called Forward-Looking InfraRed, or FLIR.

The Aviation Function

Introducing night vision goggles into an aviation operation is not quite as simple as strapping the goggles on and flying off into the night sky. For a program to be safe and effective, it is important to look at several factors. One, all the aircraft must be properly equipped with night vision-compatible instruments and exterior lighting. For off-the-line new production aircraft, this is a matter of simply installing "NVG compatible" equipment. For aircraft already in service, it is a bit more complicated. Equipment and instruments must be retrofitted and certified to be compatible with NVGs. Two, all flight personnel must be trained thoroughly on the proper operation of not only the night vision goggles, but also how to fly their particular aircraft, during all phases of flight "under the goggles." This flight training includes all the normal maneuvers such as takeoffs, landings and hovering, as well as emergency procedures. This also involves getting instructors trained in both the operational use of goggles as well as "train the trainer" courses so that they can teach these techniques. Finally, a night vision goggle maintenance schedule must be established and adhered to. If the aviation unit works closely with tactical teams, a decision should be made if the NVG advantage will be extended to the personnel on these teams. If the answer is "yes," extensive training should be conducted to make certain all players understand the benefits and limitations of this technology. All the team players should make certain they are completely comfortable conducting all missions wearing the goggles. A real tactical operation is neither the time nor place to discover that you needed additional training.

The Future

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is already grappling with the proper way to regulate this new technology. It is hoped they will take a progressive, proactive stance and not hinder their development and widespread implementation. Unfortunately, the FAA has sent mixed signals on the direction their agency is headed in the certification and regulation of NVGs, causing uncertainty in the industry. In the United States, the leader in civil NVG use has been the Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) community. In recent years, HEMS operators have had their share of fatal accidents. In an attempt to reduce this number, they have become very aggressive in finding answers to make their operations safer. Many civil operators have introduced night vision goggles as a way to enhance safety. If you ask most aviation unit personnel that have been properly trained and use NVGs routinely, they will tell you that they would no longer fly at night without them.

It is technology like this that allows us to "own the night!"