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Into the voidInto the void

By David Jack Kenny

Most of us have heard something about the dangers of black hole approaches. Trying to land after dark at an airport with few nearby lights on the ground raises the risks of spatial disorientation and optical illusion, particularly the impression that the aircraft is higher than it actually is. At runways without visual approach path guidance, pilots descend into trees, power lines, or whatever else happens to be in the way. It happens every year.

Less widely appreciated are the hazards of what could be called “black hole departures.” Leaving those same airports on dark nights puts a pilot into effective instrument conditions as soon as the nose pitches up. VFR pilots shouldn’t even think of trying it. IFR pilots have to understand that they’ll need to operate entirely on the gauges the instant the airplane reaches rotation speed.

Just before 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 16, 2014, a factory-built Lancair Columbia 300 (officially an LC-40 550FG) took off from Runway 35 of the 5,500-foot-long private airstrip at north Texas’ Cook County Ranch. On board were its owner, a 63-year-old instrument-rated private pilot, his wife, and their daughter. Witnesses saw the airplane climb straight out to perhaps 500 feet agl before beginning a right turn to the east. The angle of bank gradually increased to almost 90 degrees as the airplane descended out of sight. Its three occupants succumbed to traumatic injuries before the aircraft was destroyed by the post-crash fire. The site was less than half a mile from the departure end of the runway.

Investigators interviewed the pilots of a King Air, a Hawker 800, and a Cessna 550 that departed just before or after the accident. All gave similar accounts, as did the airport manager and the evening’s parking and departure coordinator. The night was extremely dark. Astronomical references indicated that moonrise began four minutes after the accident. Their descriptions of the conditions included “extremely dark,” “very murky,” “no-man’s land,” and, yes, “a black hole.”  The ramp crew was credited with doing a superb job sequencing departing aircraft onto the runway. The runway lights had been turned up to bright, which helped with the takeoff roll but also made the transition into darkness more abrupt. 

The pilot’s logbooks showed 451 hours of total flight time that included just 24 hours at night and 3.1 in actual IMC. His most recent flight review, completed three weeks before the accident, included four instrument approaches and holding procedures, all flown during daylight hours. He’d bought the Lancair in May 2012. Including transition training, he’d flown it slightly less than 120 hours since, including 2.4 hours at night. He hadn’t logged a night flight in the preceding 10 months, and his most recent two—both flown with a CFI—had taken place over the bright lights of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

Investigators established continuity of all flight controls and concluded that the engine was developing normal power on impact. The possibility of an upset by the wake turbulence of the preceding airplane, a Cessna 550 some five and a half miles ahead, was likewise excluded. Not surprisingly, the NTSB attributed the accident to “the pilot's loss of airplane control shortly after takeoff as a result of spatial disorientation due to dark night conditions, the pilot's low overall night and instrument flight time, and his lack of recent night flights.”

They also noted that under the federal aviation regulations, his currency to carry passengers at night had lapsed more than six months earlier. Since many pilots cite the night-currency rule as a favorite example of regulations with no apparent safety benefit, it’s worth remembering that it can serve a useful purpose. Adherence to the letter of the regulation might have persuaded him to postpone the flight until morning—and if he’d chosen to attempt it alone, it would at least have saved the lives of his family.