When Training Isn’t Worth the Risk


I’m sure I’m not alone in this reaction: When I hear about a crash, especially one with fatalities, at my local airport, the first thing I want to know are the names. Is it someone I know takes priority over what happened. Two weeks ago, we had a particularly bad one here at Venice. Four fatalities when a Saratoga went into the water off the departure end of Runway 23. That I didn’t know the victims was little comfort to anyone, but perhaps a relief of sorts.

When I heard the time of day—9:30 p.m.—I pretty much knew what must have happened. The pilot departed 23 into black hole conditions over the Gulf and suffered spatial disorientation. I am allowing myself this great concluding leap to make a point, for it’s entirely possible that something else caused the crash. Black hole occurs, usually in clear conditions, where there’s no discernible horizon and no surface lights to offer visual cuing.   

Transitioning to and from black hole conditions is, in my view, more fraught than transitioning into solid IMC, night or day. The reason this is so, I think, is because there may be just enough point-source lighting to lull you into thinking you have a visual horizon when you have none at all. And I think this because I nearly lost it on the this very same runway about 10 years ago.

I was giving another pilot an instrument proficiency check and the last exercise for the night was to fly the GPS 31 approach with a circle to land to what was then Runway 4, now designated 5. Circling mins were 500 feet. There was no traffic, so we planned to cross over 4/22, then turn into the downwind for the circle. That would put us parallel to 22 facing toward the Gulf. I carefully explained the black hole effect and reminded the pilot several times to stay on the gauges until we turned around to land on 4. I asked him to add a couple of hundred feet to the circling MDA because I don’t like being low over the water at night.

I followed my own advice by staying on the gauges myself as we flew the circle, which went according to plan until we started the downwind-to-base turn. Faster than I could have imagined possible, the bank went to 60 degrees and the nose fell through the horizon. I went for the yoke to roll us level but felt no resistance as I applied input; the pilot had already recovered it. We lost a little over 200 feet.

“What the &^%#,” he said. We later agreed that what must have happened is that as he made the left turn to base, he shot a brief look over his shoulder at the lights along the beach. That wasn’t enough to provide a horizon cue and probably did the opposite. I didn’t notice his head switch because my eyes were locked on the AI in the mistaken belief that this was the way of not losing situational awareness myself. I have since concluded that the best way of avoiding a black hole accident is to just not fly into such conditions in the first place, if there’s an alternative. And there’s always an alternative.

When I was in Army basic training, the cadre placed various motivational posters around the barracks and buildings, one of which said, the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war. That had a nice ring to it so I took it onboard in my flight instructing. I would take students into challenging conditions such as high winds, real IMC, turbulence and the like on the theory that they would have to deal with such things so better to give them some experience before encountering them in the real world.

I’m sure I thought that in briefing up the challenge of the black hole circling approach while going ahead with it anyway. We obviously survived it, but after that, I concluded the training value wasn’t worth the risk. It also taught me that despite my considerable experience in IMC with self-confidence to match, I had, umm, certain limitations. A new phrase entered my thinking: I’m sure I have the skills to do that, but I’m still not gonna. And I haven’t departed or approached that runway at night since. I’d rather take a crosswind on the cross runway.

The Gulf black hole has claimed its share of victims. Since I’ve lived in Florida, there have been three other accidents similar to the most recent crash. Loss of control and/or spatial disorientation was cited in each. Along the Florida coast, there are a few other airports that point directly toward water, but none are quite so close to the beach with no lighted visual references. This is hardly unique to Florida, either. Lots of airports in the sparsely settled Midwest or West can have black hole conditions for both approach and takeoff. If you fly into such places at night, you may have no choice but to deal with the risk. I think it’s higher for takeoffs than landings, but the accident history just at my airport shows that pilots may underestimate the challenge.

I certainly did.

Apollo 13 Anniversary

Monday, at 1:07 EST, marks the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission splashing down in the Pacific after its harrowing aborted mission to the Moon in 1970. AVweb readers will know the story of the mission well, so there’s no need for me to summarize it here. I’m making note of it today because it’s worth memorializing and it gives me an opportunity publish the mission patch, which I think was the boldest and most artistic of all of Apollo’s missions.

It depicts three horses iconically pulling Apollo’s chariot from the Earth over the surface of the Moon. It’s one of only two mission patches that doesn’t have the name of the three astronauts. The other was Apollo 11. The reason for that is that NASA, or perhaps Neil Armstrong, wanted space for the phrase, “For All Mankind.” Or so the story goes. The patch doesn’t have that phrase.

But 13’s has a motto in Latin, “Ex Luna, Scientia”—From the Moon, knowledge. Mission commander James Lovell adopted this from the Naval Academy motto of “Ex Trident, Scientia.” From the sea, knowledge. The patch was designed by artist Lumen Winter, who had painted three similar horses on a mural for the St. Regis Hotel in New York. That mural had a fourth trailing horse, which Lovell said could have represented Ken Mattingly, who was bumped from Apollo 13 after being exposed to measles. Jack Swigert took his place. Actor Tom Hanks bought the St. Regis mural for his personal collection.

Apollo 13 was the second of the so-called H missions intended to explore regions of the Moon in detail. It would have landed at Fra Mauro, a hilly area near Mare Imbrium, 1000 miles southwest of the Sea of Tranquility. Because of the challenging terrain, Apollo 13’s lunar module, Aquarius, would begin its descent from a much lower altitude than the two previous missions had used, to give it more hovering fuel to find a safe landing site. None of that happened, of course, since Aquarius became the lifeboat that got the astronauts home. And at that, it was an exceedingly good ship.

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  1. I am with Paul on this. The older I get the wider the yellow stripe down my back gets. There is lots of stuff I did as a trainer when I was young and dumb, that I would not do now.

    The new GA simulators however, have amazingly good video so I think that is where you can do night training scenarios that are pretty realistic but no risk.

  2. There’s another eye-brain interface issue that will get you. I can’t remember the name of it but it’s something like you want to fly a constant vertical descent radius vs a straight line to a touchdown point on the runway. This puts you below the glideslope subtly. Back in the 80’s, a 172 on a night VFR training flight into Ontario airport wound up descending below the glide slop and flying right into 100′ high high tension wires. The gear caught and the occupants wound up hanging upside down for 4 hours. I think more recently that happened to a Mooney, as well. I remember reading about it here. At my rural midwest outpost near Oshkosh, one of the locals wound up flying a 172 right into a line of pine trees one night … possibly for similar reasons. He survived and the airplane survived but the airplane needed body and fender work and he needed clean underwear … HE was lucky.

    I’m with Paul and David. There are a lot of things I once did that I’ll no longer do. I, too, know I could but … why? Besides, I wanna be an octogenarian pilot. Even without the black hole effect, you can usually survive a day engine out situation whereas the same evolution at night will likely kill you.

  3. “ I would take students into challenging conditions such as high winds, real IMC, turbulence and the like”

    Visibility: 10 Miles

    Ever wonder why it’s never 11? 12? Or more? Because after 10, they stop counting.

    Believe it or not, the first time I experienced actual “10 mile visibility” (or less) was right after I got my ticket. 10 miles didn’t seem like a lot. Gave me the heebeejeebees.

    On my 1st check ride, ceilings were reported at 4k. I dunno, but when we got airborne, the ceiling was below 2k. Again, disconcerting. Numerous other VFR aircraft were in the area and it was remarkable how we all were “pressed low”, and it got crowded really quick. I discontinued the check ride and RTB.

    Turns out, most of my training took advantage of bluebird days. Wish I would have had more time in “marginal” (or at least my personal limits of marginal) conditions. It’s not a good feeling to experience marginal conditions for the first time all alone.

    • Robert, Your remark on 10 miles being the reported visibility limit brought back a memory. Many years ago, on a crystal clear midwest day, we were handed off to tower for the visual approach. A friend working the tower inquired how far out we saw the airport. I said we’ve been looking at it for at least the last 50 miles. He said, “great! He’d call it 50” and put 50sm vis in the next sequence. The tower phone rang shortly after and he was admonished for the report and a special went out with the vis back to 10 miles.

  4. There is a reason why a lot of Part 121 aircarriers have discontinued night circling approaches.
    Also turning you head in IMC conditions to see the runway will induce the leans. Set your heading bug for the runway heading and just box around the pattern with 90 degree turns. The runway isn’t going to move much.
    Black hole…. I have lots of night carrier landings, we did straight in approaches.

    • Some hated the night catapult shot more than the trap. 2.5 seconds from low light to nothingness; talk about black hole…

  5. Another great article, Paul.

    As I look back at some of my own various instances of close ones, I realize my perspective about them has changed. Soon after the event, I would count myself very lucky, believing that I had just enough skill to apply and a large amount of luck available to head off an unfortunate outcome. Now these look different. Looking close with the advantage of years of practicing better judgement, I get a real sense that I had “gotten away” with something. “Getting away” with survival is a very flimsy hook upon which to hang one’s a$$, and I have immense gratitude that I am still here and able to take that backward glance.

  6. Same thing happened to me on a post-sunset VFR arrival into Mobile, AL. a few years ago. A late let down by ATC required a 270 degree turn to lose altitude before joining final.
    Maintaining visual contact with the runway meant turning my head around and before I knew it, vertigo…I instinctively got on the gauges with no upset but that very slight loss of spatial orientation was palpable.

  7. I managed to get into an over bank going into Santa Maria in the Azores one night. Clear and a million, looked over my shoulder to keep the island in sight when the other pilot said “watch the bank angle”.
    With just the lights on the island surrounded by by black sea it was incredibly easy to do. Since then when doing a visual at night, especially when circling, I keep the autopilot on. Circles are especially easy with the Falcon EZ cockpit. Center the landing runway on the MFD with a circle representing the protected airspace and use the track mode to maneuver on AP until lined up on final.
    Not quite so easy in my Cessna but heading still insures you’re right side up while keeping the airport/runway in sight. Even though my old Cessna 300A autopilot doesn’t have any pitch it only leaves altitude to monitor.

  8. During day time, I back up the visual turns in pattern/circle with the HDG bug, at night I do it the other way around and trust the instruments first.
    I also came to appreciate synthetic vision (if the panel doesn’t have it, the ADS-B connected EFB can) both in IMC and at night, especially when flying over mountains; it’s a great tool that makes a big difference.

  9. The quotation, above, of “Ex trident, scientia”, is incorrect on several levels. The USNA motto is “Ex scientia tridens”: “From knowledge, seapower”.

    The trident (three-toothed (tri-dent) spear) is the chief weapon of Poseidon, the greek/roman god of the sea. It is not the word for the sea, but rather a symbol of power on the seas, much like “the sword” is a symbol of power on land.
    The latin word for the sea itself is “mare”.

  10. There have been several accidents at the Windover UT or ENV airport where if you take off on runway 12 on a dark night you are headed over salt flats with no lights or any references. Lots of lights to see on runways 8, 26, or 30.

  11. Your point is well taken; however, I think it is also an example of when training is worth the risk. I.e. to avoid problems with crosswind landings, you know the solution isn’t to avoid crosswind training.

    • Personal judgment call, I guess. Losing it in a crosswind won’t kill you, but spatial-D in black hole probably will. That was my calculus, anyway.

      • Well what I meant was that your lesson was worth it. And with that momentary scare, it became more dramatic than expected, an experience as you know the CFI handbook says will be better retained. It sounded like you still had plenty of room for error – nothing really unsafe.

  12. A great deal of thought has gone into providing assistance to pilots when they are landing a plane whether at night, during the day, in IMC or VMC. Approach lights, runway lights, VASI’s, PAPI’s and more all provide guidance to the runway. I wonder if there could be any type of visual aide that could be designed to assist pilots when departing into the type of conditions this article describes. If lighting wouldn’t work what about some type of AR device? Until something comes along I think Paul has the right idea, practice crosswind and downwind departures. Southwest has been doing them for years.

  13. As the Retrofire Officer for Apollo 13, I targeted the landing point of Apollo 13 to the Pacific Ocean (which is where they splashed down) not the Atlantic Ocean.

      • Yes, it was. We saw the spacecraft on parachutes from the carrier TV. The carrier was supposed to be 5 miles from the target. Clearly, if it got hit, the Navy could say they were not on the target point.
        Soon after the explosion we burned to get to safe entry conditions with a landing in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. We then burned 2 hours after coming around the moon. That burn speeded up the trajectory to get to the Pacific before the earth rotated it out from under our path.

  14. I don’t think I’ve experienced a black hole. Is KBDR is similar to Venice? KBDR Rwy 24 and 29 point to the ocean although there is 1000 feet of land before the waters edge if I remember correctly. You did expose your students to real world conditions. We did some serious IFR training into KBDR and I remember one night having to go go missed and head to KBDL because the ceilings and vis dropped below minimums. We waited out the weather and shot another approach into KBDR. That was the night I figured out what situational awareness really was. I was ahead of the aircraft, could watch myself fly the aircraft and know exactly where I was and was prepared for the next step. I’m far from that now.

    • I don’t remember Bridgeport being too bad unless there was haze or fog over the sound. It was a reasonably clear, the north short of Long Island was visible and well illuminated. The Cape and Islands were pretty bad throughout the summer because there was always sea fog on the horizon. That’s what got JFK Jr.

      I flew a lot of approaches to mins out there for charter work and really loved it. Miss not being able to do here in Florida.

    • KBDR is not much of a problem at night. But I do remember a close encounter when departing Block Island (KBID) from Runway 10 one summer evening. The runway faces Long Island Sound and the Atlantic – a black-hole departure. Soon after take-off and while climbing out, the island’s city lights below and behind me, nothing but blackness in front, when I saw a single landing light of a plane on a base-to-final turn, landing opposite direction.

      I called on the CTAF – no response. I checked my radio, made sure I had the right freq, called again, still no answer. I maneuvered, but we still seemed to be on a collision course. I lowered my nose to stay under the opposing traffic, then glanced left to begin a turn away.

      That’s when I noticed the distant CT/RI shoreline. It’s position and angle jarred me, and I quickly pitched up and began climbing again. I looked ahead and realized the “landing light” was actually on or just above the water – some kind of bright anchor light on a boat, or offshore lighthouse, or maybe Venus, I don’t know. But I was aiming to fly under it….

      What I do remember is how perfect the illusion felt. Up to that point I felt certain it was a plane turning towards the runway.

  15. For over 20 years, I provided flight instruction from the Jacqueline Cochran airport (KTRM) in SoCal, a WWII airport surrounded by mountains located 20 nm south of Palm Springs, CA. Night departures from runway 17 towards the Salton Sea can present interesting ‘black hole conditions’ and associated vertigo, especially during moonless nights.

    To prepare my primary students, I would explain what to expect and how to react during these situations. During a night qualification flight, while climbing out, a student experienced vertigo and requested that we turn back and end the flight. After landing, I asked the student to explain what had happened, and he humorously responded, “Okay, do not eat Mexican food before a night flight.”

    Reflecting on the situation, I discovered that it is possible that the Mexican food consumed before the flight caused gastrointestinal distress, contributing to the vertigo. After researching this, I found that certain foods, such as spicy or greasy foods, can irritate the stomach and lead to nausea, which can further exacerbate the feeling of dizziness or spinning. In any case, it was a valuable lesson learned. Bananas are better!

  16. Went to X-Plane and positioned the 172 at KVNC, RWY 23 and set time for 10 PM EST and vis 2SM. By custom I loaded the RNAV approach to the opposite (050) and set the heading bug for 230. On rotation I was shocked at how quickly the wind screen became a “black hole”. There were no usable visual reference points. Wow. Eyes went to the glass and we flew to 3000 MSL without looking up. According to the FAA database the pilot Mr. Lumpkin is instrument-rated – would be nice to know if he filed an IFR flight plan. Agreed that R > B to train this one live. Anyone IMO would benefit from running through X-Plane or MSFS. Great article Paul.

  17. Reminds me of the time I asked my occasional flight instructor to teach me how to recognize and recover from inverted flat spins. He hadn’t felt it necessary to do so in my transition from an RV-4 to my modified S-1S.
    He was hesitant, but I talked him into doing it in his S-2A.
    He talked me into the entry, but my feet refused to do what he (and my mind) commanded. After about 15 minutes of trying, he gave up, likely satisfied that I was unlikely to enter one…
    I never did.

  18. As far as crosswind landing practice, after several hundred hours in the previously mentioned RV-4, I used to do touch & goes in 40kt winds with up to 50-60 degree crossing components just for fun.
    I haven’t flown PIC in anything for a number of years, but even if I was current, I’ve learned a great deal of humility by getting into hod rod motorcycles. I found that I’m not nearly as invulnerable as I once thought. Plus, I don’t heal nearly as quickly or as well as I once did.
    Maybe I wore out my guardian angels.

  19. Burke lakefront (BKL) in Cleveland Ohio is another airport where the loss of horizon on departure has caused several accidents. The IFR departure has you turning northbound out over Lake Erie which is easy to lose horizon reference in hazy or low vis conditions. During that departure there is a 1900ft msl limit until contact with approach control is made. Makes for an interesting ride when in a jet. I used to fly air medical out of BKL for several years, with night time departures common. The last accident I recall there was a CJ with a new low time in plane owner, single pilot departing at night lost it and crashed in the cold wintertime water, killing all on board.

  20. Paul, I like reading essays that use personal stories to teach lessons based on experience. I think that they help understand a specific topic or situation better. They’re like ground school but better and at times in amusing ways. Thank you for writing a great article

  21. A hazy moonless night takeoff over Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans’ Lakefront airport was one of my worst “vertigo” memories. Zero horizon, the black sky above matched by the black lake with numerous twinkling white lights from fishing boats below. Eyes back in the cockpit, concentrate on those instruments!!

  22. Paul, I isn’t the stock recommendation to pilots is ‘explore the edges’ with a CFI (or CFII) so if you encounter that situation you’ll have seen it before and will be better able to cope with it.” Takeoffs over water are not the only time the horizon disappears in a sea of black. Try night flight over the mountains or deserts when an unforecast overcast develops… or a mid layer of scattered clouds are encountered. I appreciate your decision to avoid exercising your CFII certificate in those ugly pretend VFR takeoffs over water. That’s a sign of intelligent self assessment. But, pilots, young and old still need to have those experiences, and still need recent refreshers in dealing with them. Someone, preferably a good, current CFII needs to be there to keep that assurance of survivability in training, and later on those flights where there’s no one aboard to snatch the tiger’s tail.