Approaching poorly lit areas VFR at night, or the dreaded 'black hole approach', can be challenging for even the most experienced pilots. On March 15, 2002, a 300-hour, non-instrument rated, private pilot and his three passengers were killed when the Cessna 172P they were in crashed approaching Ocean City airport (OXB) in Ocean City, Maryland. The weather that night was VFR, very clear and very dark.
Shortly before the accident, the pilot called over UNICOM that he was ten miles out and requested a taxi. A pilot approaching the airport at the same time witnessed the accident. He saw the 172 approach the airport, pass abeam the departure end of runway 14, and then suddenly transition from "horizontal to vertical flight," straight down. The airplane then flew over a 'black hole' and disappeared. Right before the airplane descended, the pilot witnessed both wing tip strobe lights flash at the same time one over the other, as if the airplane were in a 90-degree bank.
A ground witness saw the lights of the Cessna as it approached the airport, and noted that the position of the plane seemed unusual, noting that she thought it was a helicopter because of the aircraft's low altitude. She saw the airplane travel south to north along the coast, then turn east out to sea. The airplane then completed a 'half turn' and descended straight into the water.
The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be the pilot's spatial disorientation, which resulted in his subsequent loss of control of the airplane. A factor was the dark night, over water visual conditions.
Landing at a 'black hole' airport can prove as difficult as an instrument approach. 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 ASI's safety advisor, Spatial Disorientation, and Julie Boatman's article, "Black Holes", in the March 2004 issue of AOPA Pilot magazine. Julie explores the dangers of landing at dark airports, and gives the reader some helpful tips to avoid the traps associated with black hole airports.
This accident report as well as others can be found in ASI's Online Database.
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