A dark cloud has recently settled on the general aviation community from the fatal airplane crash of Babar and Haris Suleman. They were a father and son pilot team who were attempting to fly around the world. They had become popular through social media.
Followers of their journey wonder what happened that their Beechcraft could depart in ideal conditions — a 10,000-foot sea level runway at midnight — only to crash nose first into the inky black ocean seconds later? Speculation continues to light up many online forums, while the investigation remains ongoing. The leading theory is that they succumbed to the elusive and dreaded Black Hole Departure.
The Black Hole Departure, or as the FAA medical literature identifies it, the “Black Hole Illusion,” can happen on a night with no stars or moonlight over water or unlighted terrain. It can also happen when departing from a lighted runway where the horizon is not visible. The sudden loss of a horizon or any ground references is followed by the rapid onset of vertigo.
A pilot experiencing vertigo may typically do one of two things: The first is to bank the aircraft and push the yoke forward, descending into a death spiral. The other is to bank the airplane and pull back on the yoke, creating a stall-spin scenario. At low altitudes and low airspeeds, either maneuver often results in a death sentence.
Black Hole Departures are legendary in the pilot community. Legendary as they are rare, and generally avoidable. Rare because the majority of general aviation pilots haven’t flown in conditions that might precipitate them. Avoidable because the conditions that cause them are often transient. It’s like they say about the weather in New Hampshire, “If you don’t like it, wait a few minutes.”
That’s why the recent fatal crash of the Sulemans triggered so much Sturm und Drang in online forums. It’s also the reason why so many pilots formerly silent on the subject have come out to share their experiences encountering and surviving the dreaded Black Hole Departure.
Those, coupled with these excerpted from reports made to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, underscore a Black Hole Departure’s slippery and punishing nature:
“I was a crewmember in a California Highway Patrol airplane. We planned a local night instrument (IFR) flight. The ground visibility was good — I could see the length of the runway — but it seemed that the fog was getting lower. We took off from Runway 24. I saw that we had entered instrument flight conditions (IMC) almost immediately after takeoff. I also felt the aircraft start a right turn. I did a quick scan of the aircraft instruments and saw that we were in a 20° banked right turn. We were off course, our alt was leveling off at 500 feet, and our airspeed was increasing.
“I asked the flying pilot where we were headed. He confirmed we were en route to the VOR. I said we weren’t going to get there on our present heading, approximately 60° off course. I asked him if he was all right. He said he had vertigo.”
The reporting pilot then took control of the aircraft and course corrected until they got to VFR-on-top conditions. When he returned control of the airplane to the flying pilot for the practice approach, that pilot again flew the plane erratically, consistent with the return of vertigo. The reporting pilot again took control, canceled their original flight plan, and got VFR vectors to an airport where the weather was reported clear with ground visibility unobstructed.
This reporting pilot correctly assessed what had happened: “The pilot had set in his mind to do night flying but did not mentally prepare for entering actual IMC so quickly. I suggest that pilots receive regular dual night training and that all crew members are trained to recognize vertigo and to know what to do when it occurs.”
Pilots are pretty good at preparing themselves for the task at hand, especially when we’ve done it before. In the case of the California Highway Patrol pilot who got vertigo from a Black Hole Departure, he was ready for a VFR night takeoff based on his previous experiences — dark skies, lights on the ground and stars above to guide him. When he encountered a low ceiling, it obscured the lights below and the stars above. The pilot failed to recognize his new reality and jump on the instruments to stave off vertigo. Had he been flying solo that night, he probably would have been the subject of an NTSB report instead of a NASA report.
It doesn’t have to be a dark, unlit night to trigger a Black Hole Illusion. After all, as this NASA reporter proves, an unprepared pilot climbing into a sudden whiteout can also suffer the same scary fate:
“I had decided to perform some takeoffs and landings at KMMK. The weather was marginal VFR with an observed ceiling that looked OK. During climbout, the mist became light rain and the visibility became worse. Then the wall of white came and made the airport behind me disappear. I had no plan for this event.”
Like the highway patrol officer on the night flight, this pilot hadn’t planned for the possibility of losing visual ground and horizon reference. And he quickly got behind the aircraft:
“Barely at pattern altitude, but I could already tell that I had my hands full. Things were not good. I believe I was fighting vertigo. Some things were not making sense. I was able to tune in Bradley Approach and call for assistance. He gave me the altimeter setting and started giving me instructions. All turns were half standard rate. He kept reminding me to watch the airspeed and altimeter and would have me call out ‘wings level’ after the turns. At about 1,200 feet mean sea level, I came out of the clouds with the runway in front of me.”
This pilot ended up spending 30 minutes in IFR conditions when he had started out just wanting to spend a few minutes flying locally in VFR. He deluded himself into a false sense of security by telling himself that he “was just going to stay in the pattern.”
The bottom line is that Black Hole Departures can be black, white or gray. Their color is irrelevant. It’s the psychological makeup of the pilot at the moment he is confronted with a Black Hole Departure that determines whether it becomes a non-event or a deadly accident.
In both scenarios, each pilot expressed a certain amount of over-confidence. Instructor after instructor has taught that the over-confident pilot is a deadly pilot. He’s relaxed when he shouldn’t be. He stops looking for potential problems. His over-confidence lulls him into a false sense of security. It may encourage him to skip practiced procedures. This can quickly cause the pilot to get behind the plane, causing confusion. Confusion careens quickly into a crisis.
Salvation for both pilots came from having another crewmember onboard, one in the seat and the other on the radio. Sometimes having a second crewmember has the opposite effect. Sometimes it allows pilots to let themselves get sucked into a Black Hole Departure scenario.
In his summation, this pilot admitted that being part of a two-person crew caused him to exercise poor judgment:
“Departed Hillsboro in right seat of company jet. Conditions were IMC. Upon liftoff, I became disoriented and dizzy from vertigo,” wrote this NASA reporter. “The point of the ASRS report is that I probably used poor judgment flying the next leg from KPUB-KMOB. I should have grounded the plane and myself at KPUB. Contributing factors were ‘get home-itis’ and the belief that even if I were incapacitated, the 10-year captain could get us home.”
But what if the 10-year captain had also become incapacitated? What then? A jagged black scar on a mountainside? A black smear in a cornfield?
There are two ways to deal with a Black Hole Departure. The first is to avoid launching when conditions are ripe for its occurrence.
Unlike this guy: “Departed into clouds. Hit turbulence. Vertigo ensued. Plane hard to control and deviated from runway heading. Got it back under control but barely. I didn’t really explain to the tower what I’d hit. I just said I was in trouble and needed help. They put me back on radar heading, and I was handed to Departure. Departing almost zero/zero was a very bad idea. Turbulence in the clouds while climbing was harder to deal with than expected.”
The second is if it happens, take immediate action:
- GET on your instruments.
- STAY on your instruments.
- BELIEVE your instruments.
- EXPECT vertigo.
Golfers like to say, “You never want to be thinking ‘what if…’ on the golf course. You just want to be in the moment.” Alas, we don’t have that luxury. Pilots have to both be in the moment while simultaneously thinking “what if…”
That’s what will keep us from getting sucked into a Black Hole Departure disaster. That’s what staying ahead of the airplane is all about.