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Aviation Learning Center Document Flying in Flat Light and White Out Conditions
Author: FAA Date: 2001
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These definitions are not intended to be official scientific explanations, but merely to serve as operational definitions suitable to the aviation community for the purpose of this training. These terms should not be used interchangeably.

Flat Light

Flat light is an optical illusion, also known as "sector or partial white out." It is not as severe as "white out" but the condition causes pilots to lose their depth-of-field and contrast in vision. Flat light conditions are usually accompanied by overcast skies inhibiting any good visual clues. Such conditions can occur anywhere in the world, primarily in snow covered areas but can occur in dust, sand, mud flats, or on glassy water. Flat light can completely obscure features of the terrain, creating an inability to distinguish distances and closure rates. As a result of this reflected light, it can give pilots the illusion of ascending or descending when actually flying level. However, with good judgment and proper training and planning, it is possible to safely operate an aircraft in flat light conditions.

White Out

As defined in meteorological terms, white out is when a person becomes engulfed in a uniformly white glow. The glow is a result of being surrounded by blowing snow, dust, sand, mud or water. There are no shadows, no horizon or clouds and all depth-of-field and orientation are lost. A white out situation is severe in that there aren't any visual references. Flying is not recommended in any white out situation. Flat light conditions can lead to a white out environment quite rapidly, and both atmospheric conditions are insidious: they sneak up on you as your visual references slowly begin to disappear. White out has been the cause of several aviation accidents in snow-covered areas.

Self Induced White Out

This effect typically occurs when a helicopter takes off or lands on a snow-covered area. The rotor down wash picks up particles and re-circulates them through the rotor system. The effect can vary in intensity depending upon the amount of light on the surface. This phenomenon can happen on the sunniest, brightest day with good contrast everywhere. However, when it happens, there can be a complete loss of visual clues. If the pilot has not prepared for this immediate loss of visibility, the results can be disastrous.

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