Estonia at night: the smallest light can show the way

Ämari, Estonia, 10 March 2017
It is pitch dark at Ämari airbase. An icy wind batters the runway. Thick clouds cover the sky. Loud bangs and rumbling reveal that the Eurofighters are up in the air – but it is impossible to see them. This is what a week of nocturnal flying practice looks like. Estland bei Nacht 1 Bild vergrößern Looking at the control tower of Ämari airbase through night vision goggles shows that spatial vision is limited. (© Luftwaffe/Philipp Kloß)

While in Germany the sun is slowly disappearing over the horizon, it is already dark in Estonia. The hangar doors open: it is time to practise a security flight. Two pilots from the German contingent of enhanced Baltic Air Policing have 15 minutes to get their Eurofighters up in the air. The flight gear is in the lockers, ready to be used. What the Eurofighter pilots absolutely must not forget are their night vision goggles. Estland bei Nacht 2 Bild vergrößern The ground crew chief directs the Eurofighter pilot out of the hangar for a night flight. (© Luftwaffe/Philipp Kloß)

Roland Q. is a civilian responsible for the crew escape system and the maintenance of the pilots’ entire equipment. His nick name is Pattex, after the German glue brand, because he is able to fix equipment with the most simple of glues. “I inspect equipment thoroughly every day before it is handed to the pilots. I particularly check the night vision goggles to see whether there are any optical defects. Together with the pilots, I meticulously go through every individual adjustment they have made,” explains Pattex. He shows a test card with different shades of grey. With this card he can make sure that the night vision goggles have enough contrast, since they need to work flawlessly, even in low light situations when neither the moon nor the stars provide natural light in the night.

Estland bei Nacht 3 Bild vergrößern A Eurofighter pilot already sitting in the cockpit, performing the final checks before take-off. (© Luftwaffe/Philipp Kloß)

Seeing without being seen

The pilots get into their jets and first stow their goggles in a box to their right. Only after take-off, long after the Eurofighters have disappeared in the sky, do the pilots take out their goggles and with a simple mechanism attach them to their helmets. Spatial perception is not easy when wearing night vision goggles. That is why the pilots practise working with them. Flying with night vision goggles has not previously been a routine part of the job for pilots in Germany. This will change soon. NATO is calling for this capability to be made an integral part of flying. Bild Estland bei Nacht 4 Bild vergrößern In coordination with the Eurofighter pilots, the crew of the quick reaction force alert element complete the last few steps before take-off. (© Luftwaffe/Philipp Kloß)

But why do pilots need night vision if they have radar? Lieutenant Colonel Björn Andersen, contingent commander at Ämari and a Eurofighter pilot himself, knows the answer: “This is an essential method for identifying aircraft with your own eyes. During a security flight at night, for example, the only way to identify an aircraft type with complete certainty is by using night vision goggles. Night vision provides pilots with a significant tactical advantage and is therefore indispensable.”

This is a translation of an article by Philipp Kloß published on