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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

Black holes

Approaching poorly lit runways at night under visual flight rules, or the dreaded black hole approach, can be challenging for even the most experienced pilots. On March 15, 2002, a 300-hour, noninstrument-rated private pilot and his three passengers were killed when their Cessna 172P crashed approaching Ocean City Municipal Airport in Ocean City, Maryland. The weather that night was VFR, very clear, and very dark.

Shortly before the accident, the pilot reported on the unicom frequency that he was 10 miles out and requested a taxi. A pilot approaching the airport at the same time witnessed the accident. He saw the 172 approach the airport, pass abeam the departure end of Runway 14, and then suddenly transition from "horizontal to vertical flight," straight down. Just before the airplane descended, the pilot witnessed both wingtip strobe lights flash at the same time one over the other, as if the airplane were in a 90-degree bank.

A witness on the ground saw the lights of the Cessna as it approached the airport and noted that the position of the airplane seemed unusual, saying that she thought it was a helicopter because of its low altitude. She saw the airplane travel south to north along the coast, then turn east out to sea. The airplane then completed a "half turn" and descended straight into the water.

The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be the pilot's spatial disorientation, which subsequently caused him to lose control of the airplane. A factor was the dark night and reduced visual references over water.

Landing at a black hole airport can prove as difficult as an instrument approach. Such airports border or are located in areas with no surface lights and no discernable horizon to help VFR pilots maintain a proper flight attitude. In fact, black holes can exist wherever a pilot can't see anything much beyond runway lights (or focuses exclusively on the runway lights). The pilot's ability to perceive a natural horizon can become impaired when flying over water, at night, in sparsely populated areas, and in low-visibility conditions. Spatial disorientation can occur. If you are flying into a dark, low-light airport, use extra caution and don't forget to employ your basic instrument skills.

For more information about night flight, see the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's new Safety Hotspot on AOPA Online for numerous resources, including links to our Night VFR Checkup, articles, and video clips.

Kristen Hummel manages the aviation safety database for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. She holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings.

By Kristen Hummel

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