Soon, a plane could fly you into Idaho’s backcountry in the dark of night

Boise aviation company earns FAA approval for night vision commercial flights

Boise based Aviation Specialties Unlimited was granted approval by the Federal Aviation Administration in January to use night vision goggles on commercial flights on single-engine airplanes.
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Boise based Aviation Specialties Unlimited was granted approval by the Federal Aviation Administration in January to use night vision goggles on commercial flights on single-engine airplanes.

The night sky was pitch-black as the Cessna 206 airplane flew over Eagle northwest toward Emmett. But as he looked through his night-vision goggles, pilot Dan Hutchison might as well have been flying in a black-and-white version of daytime.

Rain clouds popped out from the darkness over Meridian. Lights in Emmett and Horseshoe Bend, unseen by the naked eye, glowed with eerie white auras.

Hutchison pointed below, where every contour, stream and spine of the Foothills was clearly defined.

“Without the goggles, that would be one big dark hole,” he said.

Night-vision goggles aren’t just for helicopter pilots anymore. A Boise company has big plans to help small airplanes safely navigate terrain in the dark or to deliver military supplies to troops during the darkest nights.

Aviation Specialties Unlimited sells and installs night-vision systems in aircraft and trains pilots around the world to use them. Until now, 90 percent of its business dealt with helicopters.

Last month, the company received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to carry passengers and cargo for hire in single-engine airplanes whose pilots wear its goggles.

The goggles could be used by Idaho backcountry outfitters who could not previously deliver customers or supplies at night, said Hutchison, Aviation Specialties’ chief pilot.

“Like most pilots in Idaho, I’ve made the trip from Boise to Salmon, where there are long stretches where there’s no light on the surface,” he said. “With night-vision goggles, we can conduct those flights at night, ensuring we can see the mountains, the valleys, the clouds, the weather, very similar to if it was day.”

Founded in 1995 by husband-and-wife team Mike and Chris Atwood, Aviation Specialties has grown to 46 employees with plans to hire more. The Atwoods co-own it.

As a vendor, the company has chalked up $63 million in exports since 2013 to customers in about 75 nations. The goggles are considered arms, so the company sells only to U.S. allies. The company earned another $37 million during that time in domestic sales to customers outside Idaho, most of which were commercial operators.

The tail number on Aviation Specialties’ Cessna 206 — N16HT — is a nod to the darkness that keeps it in business. The number was designated to a plane that the company tracked down in a California bone yard. Aviation Specialities persuaded its owner to release the tail number so ASU could take it.

In 1999, Aviation Specialties was the first company to receive approval to use and train pilots on night-vision systems in helicopters. Since then, the company, based at the Boise Airport, has trained more than 6,000 helicopter pilots, crew members and maintenance personnel on night-vision systems, including crews for Air St. Luke’s and Saint Alphonsus’ Life Flight helicopters, Hutchison said.

With night-vision goggles, we see a lot more aircraft operating at night than you could ever hope to during the day.

Aviation Specialties Unlimited Chief Pilot Dan Hutchison

Before the goggles, flying into remote areas was like walking into the room with the lights turned off, said Steve Sandmeyer, director of operations for Idaho Helicopters Inc., which operates Air St. Luke’s flights.

“They’ve allowed us to have reliable night operations into even the most rural areas of our state,” he said.

Today it’s unusual to find an emergency medical services helicopter that does not have the goggles, Sandmeyer said.

The company waited about four years each time it sought FAA approval, President Jim Winkle said. In both cases, the approvals came about a decade after the U.S. military adopted night-vision goggles for helicopter and airplane crews.

Winkle said he expects rapid adoption by the fixed-wing world, which includes police and charter crews.

“Anybody doing work for the departments of state or defense, or anybody involved in search-and-rescue operations, firefighting, law enforcement, backcountry work or even oil and gas exploration” is likely to embrace night-vision systems, Winkle said. Crop-spraying and freight-delivery services could expand their operating hours, too.

Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464, @ZachKyleNews