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Which way is up?

It’s no secret why the industry puts so much energy into impressing pilots with the hazards of attempting to continue VFR flight in IMC. As we’ve pointed out over and over again, these encounters tend to have one of two possible outcomes, both dire. Those who have developed enough of an instrument scan to keep the aircraft level risk controlled flight into terrain. Those who haven’t will almost certainly have an uncontrolled impact. Research shows that on average, VFR pilots who are deprived of a visible horizon succumb to spatial disorientation and lose control of the aircraft within three minutes.

Beginning in the summer of 1999, however, the wider public has had occasion to learn something that aviators have known for decades: Clear skies don’t guarantee that you can see which way is up. The highly publicized crash of a Piper Saratoga into the Atlantic southwest of Martha’s Vineyard brought phrases like “graveyard spiral” into the national conversation—and unfortunately reinforced the misconception that small aircraft are inherently perilous.

Given the media attention lavished on that tragedy, it’s remarkable that the same situation continues to trap unwary airmen. Still more remarkable is the depth of expertise of many of those who succumbed. The pilot in the 1999 accident wasn’t very experienced—a little over 300 hours, with 36 in the same make and model and only three of those without a CFI on board. But airline transport pilots with tens of thousands of hours have also fallen victim to spatial disorientation in VMC at night with equally grim results.

The Saratoga crash was unusual in another respect: The accident site was fewer than 10 miles from the intended destination. Presumably, this was caused in part by the availability of visual references for most of the first hour of the flight. More typical in the long-term record is a loss of control immediately after takeoff over dark, featureless terrain—and particularly over bodies of water.

On a January evening in 2008, for example, a Beech Baron took off from Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport on a positioning flight to Niagara Falls, began a right turn, and almost immediately crashed into Lake Erie. Investigators found no evidence of any mechanical or instrumentation problem with the airplane, and weather wasn’t an issue; the ceiling was 25,000 feet, with light winds and 10 miles visibility. The pilot was more than qualified to fly by instrument references: He was a multiengine ATP with commercial privileges for single-engine airplane, single-engine seaplane, and helicopter and more than 18,000 hours in his logbook. He also held CFII, MEI, and CFII-helicopter instructor ratings—but apparently failed to make the transition to instruments immediately after liftoff.

Five months later, a 1,370-hour commercial pilot with MEI and CFII ratings took two passengers on an evening sightseeing flight in a Cessna T206. Less than four minutes after taking off from Cedar Key, Florida, they went down in the Gulf of Mexico. Again, skies were clear and visibility unlimited, but over the dark water the airplane never climbed above 900 feet. The moon was below the horizon.

Airplane pilots aren’t the only ones so afflicted. In August 2012, the pilot of a Bell 407 helicopter who had made repeated flights across Virginia’s South Holston Lake during the afternoon lifted off again about 10:30 p.m. The 26,000-hour airline transport pilot (rated in single- and multiengine airplanes as well as helicopters) got about 150 yards into his takeoff run across the lake before his skids dipped into the water and the aircraft nosed over. He had left the landing lights off for reasons that were never explained.

Of course, the fact that expert pilots are susceptible hardly makes novices immune. The two private pilots who drove a Cessna 172 into the Gulf after a night takeoff from Key West had barely 200 hours combined. Nor is the hazard unique to open water. In November 2009, a 600-hour private pilot and his 1,200-hour CFI began some night pattern work at Tallahassee Regional in Florida. They lost control of their Cessna 172 over a moonless expanse of forest turning from crosswind to downwind on their very first circuit.

Woods—with heavy snow—also claimed a Cessna Caravan departing from Pellston, Michigan, on a freight run in January 2013. The 2,000-hour commercial pilot—who also held multiengine and instrument instructor ratings—apparently never established the airplane in a stable climb. Data downloaded from his portable GPS showed the Caravan in a continuous right bank, reaching a maximum altitude of only 260 feet agl.

The common thread in all of these, of course, is the failure to recognize that a dark night takeoff effectively becomes an instrument flight the instant the aircraft breaks ground. Given their experience, it’s a safe bet that most of these pilots knew that very well; the fatal lapses were almost surely uncharacteristic and isolated errors. But the nature of that particular mistake leaves precious little time to establish a scan and recover the aircraft—sometimes not enough.

The keys to avoiding it, of course, are awareness and training. All pilots need to be aware that VMC effectively becomes IMC when there’s nothing out there to see, and VFR pilots (including students) need enough effective instrument training to recognize and escape the trap. The Air Safety Institute recommends seeking as much additional instrument training as that individual might need to cope with a loss of visual references, going as far beyond the FARs’ minimum experience requirements as necessary. One instructor on AOPA’s headquarters staff likes to take students on night flights to Ocean City, Maryland. The traffic pattern for Runway 14 takes the airplane out over the Atlantic, and he usually has to take the controls before they’ve begun turning to crosswind. It’s an eye-opening experience for his students—and one worth replicating by equally knowledgeable and well-prepared instructors elsewhere.

ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny is a freelance aviation writer.

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