"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 looked down at the unforgiving scenery and said, ‘The airport must be right there, but I just don’t see it!’
Step one in becoming an airport dowser is knowing what you’re looking for. Too often, pilots look for an airport without consulting an airport diagram or sectional. What’s the runway layout? This tells you what shapes you are looking for. Where are you approaching from? The most difficult airport to see is one with a single long runway when you’re approaching perpendicular to that runway. It really helps to know that in advance. Where is it relative to any 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 surrounded by a sea of lights, but the airport itself is often the dark area. It’s less lit than the average urban neighborhood. Look for the hole in the lights.
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 for most approaches a few thousand feet above the field.
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. It’s the combination that shows you’ve found, finally, the airport.”