Black holes continue to swallow pilots
When the leaves on the trees start turning color, the air seems crisp, and the days get noticeably shorter, you know fall is rapidly approaching. With less light to work with, honing your night skills is imperative, especially if you are flying into a poorly lit or unfamiliar airport. On January 22, 2005, the instrument-rated pilot of a Beechcraft Bonanza and his passenger were killed when they crashed on final approach at Brownwood Regional Airport in Brownwood, Texas, during dark night conditions.
The flight departed Dallas Executive Airport at 6 a.m. CST on an IFR flight plan to Brownwood. Upon arrival the pilot was cleared for a visual approach to Runway 35 at 6:42 a.m. While descending into the airport the Bonanza hit power lines and trees before striking the ground. Witnesses heard the airplane overhead and then a loud explosion. One witness noted that the airplane was at about 500 feet agl, 3 miles south of the airport and heading north.
Weather at Brownwood was reported as winds 360 degrees at 9 knots, visibility 10 statute miles, sky clear, temperature 57 degrees F, dew point 45 degrees F. Witnesses to the accident said that it was dark, the sky was clear, and the winds were calm.
After the accident the investigator conducted a test, with the help of the local fire department, to see if the pilot could have seen the runway from the point where the Bonanza hit the wires. On a night with light and weather conditions similar to those at the time of the accident, the investigator used a ladder truck to raise numerous firefighters to the height of where the airplane hit the wires. All indicated that at a height of 40 feet the airport was clearly visible, but many thought they were 150 to 200 feet above the ground. Because of a lack of lighting and sloping terrain, they experienced a sensation called "black hole" effect with no visual horizon.
The NTSB determined the cause of the accident was the failure of the pilot to maintain proper altitude and clearance while on final approach. Contributing factors included the pilot's lack of familiarity with the airport, the light conditions, the lack of visual approach glide slope indicators (VASI) and spatial disorientation.
The pilot had 786 hours total time, 636 of which were in the accident airplane. He also had 94 hours of total night experience, with five hours in the last year and three on the morning of the accident.
Landing at a poorly lit airport can be as difficult as an instrument approach down to minimums. 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. The lack of a natural horizon for VFR pilots can lead to spatial disorientation. If you are flying into dark, low-light airport, use extra caution and don't be afraid to rely on your basic instrument skills.
For more information about spatial disorientation and techniques for operating at black hole airports, see the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Safety Advisor, Spatial Disorientation, and Julie Boatman's article, "Black Holes," from the March 2004 issue of AOPA Pilot.