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No horizonsNo horizons

By David Jack Kenny

It’s become a cliché to define insanity as “doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.”  Still, by that standard general aviation as a community remains painfully deluded, however admirable the cognitive processes of most individual practitioners. Name the crucial mistake, and it will be repeated by some small percentage of aviators year after year after year, no matter how widely previous examples have been discussed and lamented.

Just after midnight on Aug. 10, 2015, the pilot of a rented 1973 Piper Arrow taxied out to Runway 25 at the Marathon Airport in the Florida Keys. The night was calm and clear but dark: The sun had set four hours earlier and the moon three hours before that. The solo private pilot had received his complex endorsement in May and completed a flight review the previous December. He did not have an instrument rating. The last available measure of his flight experience was a medical application filed nearly a year and a half earlier, which listed 125 hours. The extent of his experience flying at night is not known, but the rental agreement he’d signed with the airplane’s operator prohibited “any night flights to or from the Bahamas or the Florida Keys before sunrise or after sunset.” His reasons for ignoring that provision are not known:  He’d retired from his first career a year earlier, and the airplane wasn’t due back for another day.

Footage from the airport’s security cameras showed the Arrow accelerate on the takeoff roll, lift off, and climb out on the upwind. Shortly after it turned crosswind, its lights disappeared from view. The same footage “revealed the absence of any visible horizon to the northwest of the airport.” Two boaters nearby saw the Arrow descend into the water and reached the scene in time to pull its unconscious pilot from the water.  He was pronounced dead by first responders as soon as they reached the shore.

The wreckage was found “in numerous pieces” in nine feet of water with “impact and crush damage to both wings, cabin, and fuselage.” Examination found no evidence of fuel contamination or any failure of the flight controls, engine, vacuum pump, or instruments prior to impact. Toxicology results showed that the pilot had not been impaired by drugs or alcohol. Not surprisingly, the NTSB concluded that the accident resulted from “spatial disorientation while turning after takeoff in dark night conditions,” and the ensuing discussion made particular note of the somatogravic illusions that can afflict a pilot deprived of visual references. In particular, leveling the wings after a turn is easily mistaken for a turn in the opposite direction, leading the pilot to steepen the original bank in the attempt to recover.

Night departures over bodies of water are particularly subject to this hazard, and it isn’t just low-time VFR pilots who are at risk. The pilot of the Cessna T206H that crashed into the Gulf of Mexico just after a night takeoff from Cedar Key in June 2008 had a commercial certificate, instrument rating, and almost 1,500 hours of flight time. Five months before that, a Model 58 Beech Baron went down in Lake Erie just after taking off from Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport after dark. At the controls was an airline transport pilot with some 18,600 hours of experience. In both cases, the NTSB concluded that the pilots' failure to make an immediate transition to instrument flight after lifting off led to spatial disorientation.

The hazards of attempting VFR flight over water at night have been known to the aviation community for decades. The 1999 Kennedy/Bessette accident brought them to the attention of the wider public (with some of the misrepresentations and distortions that typically accompany coverage of technical subjects by the popular press). Less widely discussed but no less real are how greatly those risks are magnified when the flight involves low-altitude maneuvering—as in a traffic pattern—in an environment with no visible horizons.