"Even with a GPS, sometimes I just can’t find an unfamiliar airport. It’s even worse at night. Any tips would be greatly appreciated!" — Rich D.
“There’s not a pilot in the world who hasn’t had this experience at least a few times.
You’re already using your GPS, so take that a step further. You can put your GPS into OBS mode and dial a course matching the landing runway. You can also enter direct to the airport on a course that matches the landing runway. Either one will display a magenta line you can use to align on final. It won’t match the runway exactly, but it’ll be close.
You can load an instrument approach (or in some systems a visual approach) for precise alignment with the landing runway. Those may even give vertical guidance. However, unless you’re instrument rated, or have practiced with these functions in daylight, they should be used with caution—especially at night.
Whether or not you use cockpit technology, there are some low-tech solutions you should also employ. Too often, pilots look for an airport without consulting an airport diagram or sectional. The runway layout tells you what shapes you’re looking for. The most difficult airport to see is one with a single, long runway when you’re approaching perpendicular to that runway. Check for obvious landmarks, like a nearby lake or hill.
In busy residential areas, look for the area that isn’t built up. Likewise at night, a metropolitan airport is usually surrounded by a sea of lights. That means the airport itself is often hiding in a big dark patch.
Sighting the rotating beacon is great, but don’t just scan left and right searching for it. Hold your gaze in a particular direction for at least five seconds, so you can see the white flash and the green flash.
Turning on pilot-controlled lighting, or changing the brightness, is a great way to make the airport pop-out at night. Do this when you’re at least five miles away. At a towered airport, you can ask the tower controller to turn the lights up and down for you.
Two last comments about night arrivals: When maneuvering in the pattern, keep an eye on your instruments as it’s easy to lose sight of your horizon while looking over your shoulder for a runway. And when straight-in, rely on a VASI or PAPI so that you don’t end up too low on final approach, and actually meet the ground a quarter-mile short of the landing threshold.”
It's night time. You're five miles from a towered airport and were told to enter downwind on the same side of the airport you're approaching. But you can't see the airport itself. What would you do?