Black Holes

Ferreting out notorious night airports

March 1, 2004

We were part of a two-ship formation of Nanchang CJ-6As on our way to Bartow Municipal Airport, in central Florida. After skirting the Mickey Mouse temporary flight restriction over Walt Disney World as the sun set, we made our way toward Runway 27R. The blanket of lights southwest of Orlando fell away as we maneuvered for the final approach. Once we turned, we saw nothing but darkness where the trees and remnants of swampland lay off the approach end of the runway. I was momentarily disoriented. The black below sucked me in. As a result, I kept the speed up, feeling ground shy, and paid for my fast approach with a less-than-glamorous arrival.

With a Gulfstream III accident in 2001 at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport/Sardy Field (Aspen, Colorado), in which the pilots had the runway in sight yet struck unlit terrain just short and to the right of the runway (see " Proficient Pilot: Visual Contact," June 2001 Pilot), the undeniable hazards of night approaches to runways with surrounding terrain have come center stage. Airports in rugged locations such as Jackson, Wyoming; Taos, New Mexico; and Eagle, Colorado — as well as points east, such as Cumberland, Maryland, and Hot Springs, Virginia — are notorious. But some of the same qualities that make these airports dangerous at night can also pop up where you least expect them. A simple lack of lighting in the area — whether it's because you're out on the Great Plains or in rural areas, or you're making an approach over water or rough terrain — can erase your cues.

Trees, terrain

Anything nature-made — be it pine or dirt — that sticks up into the approach path can cause problems, as these objects are rarely illuminated. And manmade obstructions such as towers and powerlines — not all have lighting — can disappear in the dark, as the pilot of a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza discovered on a visual approach to Runway 22 at Taos Regional Airport one January evening in 1987. Although the pilot successfully landed the airplane after catching invisible lines and was unhurt, the Bonanza didn't fare so well.

The first thing to do while planning a flight to an airport that you have never approached before at night is to look at an airport/facility directory (A/FD) or other airport reference, such as AOPA's Airport Directory (either in print, on CD, or online), to determine if there are any obstructions and to which runway they pertain.

When an object such as a cell phone tower or powerline pole is lit, the red light can be difficult to pick out in a field of other lights. A safe bet is to plan a steep approach, within your skills and your airplane's capabilities, to grant you extra assurance that you have a clear path down. If you have a choice of runways, pick one with a visual approach slope indicator (VASI) or precision approach path indicator (PAPI), some kind of illuminated tool to help you determine the glide path. The lack of a VASI was mentioned in the report of a mishap at Allegheny County Airport near Pittsburgh in 1995. Without vertical guidance, the pilot touched down only 800 feet from the far end of 2,534-foot Runway 23 and rolled off the end after heavy braking. If you have the option of choosing a longer runway, with a VASI, in calm winds — as were the conditions in this case — stack the deck in your favor. While Allegheny County is neither rural nor particularly forested, Runway 23's approach path takes you over open ground during its last quarter mile, and that's enough to create a black hole effect.

Avoiding the Traps

  • Research your destination airport and alternates thoroughly before takeoff — you should have a couple on hand for any night flight, whether VFR or IFR. Use the airport/facility directory, AOPA's Airport Directory in print and online, and other Web sites to determine if any particular hazards exist. Call the airport manager or an FBO if you have questions.
  • Look for hazards such as open areas or bodies of water without approach lighting near the approach ends of each runway, obstructions both lighted and unlighted, and terrain on arrival and approach.
  • Understand the airport's lighting installations. You may encounter pilot-controlled lighting (know how to turn it on and modify its intensity), approach lighting systems, lighted VASI and PAPI systems, and situations where only select runways are lighted — reducing your choices.
  • Practice stabilized approaches both with VASI or PAPI cues and without.
  • With an instructor, simulate unusual night situations such as loss of the landing light, loss of pilot-controlled lighting, and electrical failures

When you're shopping the A/FD, look for notes on a displaced threshold. While sometimes the displacement is simply a means to reduce the noise footprint of a runway whose approach path lies over congested areas, most of the time the offset threshold is there to give approach path clearance over an obstruction. An A/FD states if a runway has a displaced threshold, and often the reason for it. You won't be able to see this as easily in the dark, so have it in mind as you plan your descent. One memorable descent to a runway with a displaced threshold didn't grab my attention until the day after, when I saw the powerlines that the PAPI helped me miss the night before.

Indeed, an airport that appears benign from a glance at the chart can turn out to be anything but an easy night haven.

Roanoke, Virginia, lies in the mouth of the Roanoke Valley, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With the airport safely ensconced in the green area of the Cincinnati Sectional, and surrounded on three sides by city lights, you might believe that the airport poses no particular challenge at night. However, a close look at airport details tells a different story. The approach to Runway 6 at Roanoke Regional/Woodrum Field brings you down the valley from Blacksburg, over several patches of higher terrain. Departure from the same runway calls for a heading adjustment during climbout, and departures from Runway 33 and landings on Runway 15 are not authorized at night.

One pilot of a Piper Cherokee Six, after telling the tower that he had "all terrain in sight," descended for a visual approach to Runway 24 at Roanoke on a March night in 1991. He said that during the approach he "hit a downdraft" and struck a tree on a mountain ridge. He recovered the airplane and landed safely.

Into the lights

When you transition from cruise to descend into the traffic pattern, be aware of the lighting in the area — or lack thereof. Again, your study of the A/FD prior to blastoff should advise you of conditions particular to your time of arrival.

Take a busy, towered airport such as Atlanta's Dekalb-Peachtree Airport. Well, it's not as busy after 11 p.m. local time, when the tower folks head home and remote the frequency to Atlanta Approach — in fact, there's a voluntary curfew at that hour. But it's only voluntary, and the airport stays open, albeit not fully illuminated, after that. One pilot misunderstood Atlanta Approach's instructions concerning the runway lighting situation, and picked unlit Runway 16 for his approach. The lighted runway, 2L/20R, intersects 16/34 about two-thirds of the way down 16/34's nearly 4,000-foot length. The pilot saw the runway lights of 2L/20R, thought they were threshold lights for 16, and landed accordingly. He lost visual references during the landing as he left the lighted intersection of the runways and was unable to stop by the time he realized he was out of runway. It's a black hole indeed when the runway lights aren't on.

And that's another quandary: What if the lights go out? Whether the candlepower problem is in your airplane or on the ground, you lose an important tool when light is lost. From time to time, practice for this scenario by making landings with the airplane's landing light off. Set up for a normal descent on final and level off when it appears as though your tires would touch the lights — if they were mounted on the runway proper. Slowly ease back on the yoke and feel for the pavement that lurks below. Most runway lights are on poles about a foot or 18 inches high. The touchdown may not be perfect, but you can make it safe.

And what if you get to your destination, and the entire airport is dark? This happened last summer as we returned home from a trip to the Midwest. After a long day of flying, we descended into Frederick, Maryland, which was in the throes of a season-busting construction project, and made an attempt to key up the pilot-controlled lighting. Nothing. Another attempt (made after I snuck a peek at the airport info to ensure that we had the right procedure) also produced nothing. Only the glowing markers warning of the closed main runway simmered up through the dark at us. The black hole was all the more menacing because of that ghostly X. Our plan B, admittedly generated on the spot as we had received no notam for the lighting in a day's worth of briefings, involved heading to Leesburg, Virginia, about 22 nm away.

More traps

Haze can also add to your problems. The visibility was called at 6 to 7 miles over the last leg of our flight from Clarksburg to Martinsburg, West Virginia, over nearly 3,000-foot ridges of the Appalachians. We took off, heading east as the sun met the horizon behind us. I was sitting in back of a tandem-seat airplane, and the pilot in front was not instrument-rated. With no working attitude indicator that I could reference, I would either need to instruct him through flying in reduced visibility, over rough ground, at night, with only an airport or two worth diverting to across the 100 miles separating us from our goal — or I would have to make do with the instruments in front of me in this unfamiliar airplane. Needless to say, I was quite pleased when he decided to turn back to Clarksburg within 15 minutes of our launch, at the very time my gut came to the same conclusion.

The ground below was dark, the sky above purpled into nothing, and only a speck of light pinpointed a ridge or valley every few miles. As we re-turned to Harrison/Marion Regional Airport, and the pinpoints became a blanket of lights showing us the ground, the illumination's ability to guide us in safely, to give visual cues in the absence of daylight — the ultimate provider — was crystal clear.

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