The Black Hole Effect

I can’t say that I’ve ever met a pilot who didn’t believe they were above average.

Any pilot who is reading this should know what I mean. Even I won’t call myself less than an above average pilot. I can admit my instructing skills can still use much improvement – but that’s easy to admit, I’m still relatively new to it (and we should always be working on improving).

When it comes down to my flying skills, I really do think I’m good.

I’m being honest too. I know deep down that it is entirely possible that I’m wrong and I’m not above average, maybe I’m just average or below average! Even in everyday situations in life – we feel that given a certain situation we can handle it. We can handle it better than most, so we say. Until you experience that difficult situation, you still believe you can handle it better than the other guy.

Have you ever heard of a black hole? I’m not talking about those holes out in space that scientists say we get sucked into and I’m not talking about internet black holes that drop clients (I really don’t know what I’m talking about there…), but I’m talking about the black hole in aviation terms. The black hole illusion you were warned about by your flight or ground school instructors. This is the illusion you encounter when flying into an airport at night that has little surrounding features (for example, lights!) to help guide you to touchdown. For those who have no experience flying this means there’s nothing around the airport to use to judge distance and height to the runway. Pilots don’t even realize, myself included, how much we use visual cues to judge our approach, that is, until they’re gone.  Take a look at the following short video.

The video was a landing I did at the Georgetown airport in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, after one of our famous trips to Willows airport and Nancy’s airport cafe for some good (greasy) food and chocolate pie (summer 2007).

There were absolutely no visual references to judge where I was at on my approach. Lucky for me, I had been there earlier in the day and had an idea of the layout of the obstacles (by that I mean pine trees!) – so the whole way down I at least knew I wasn’t going to hit anything. I was being so cautious that on the first approach I ended up coming in way too high. I was past the half way point and still floating (3000′ runway). At that point, I thought, well, I’ll just go around and do it again (a bad decision looking back). I added full power and began slowly retracting the flaps. I lifted the gear handle to bring the gear up. The gear wasn’t coming up.

My 1972 Piper Arrow had a gear switch that didn’t allow the gear to come up below a certain airspeed – a “safety precaution” that I wasn’t so happy with it at this point. You could choose to change that manually whenever you wanted (located just by the flap handle) – but it was hard to tell sometimes which way you had it set up. Apparently mine was activated and fun time to find it out. From earlier that day, I knew there were trees off the end of the runway, this time on the departure end, and I was worried. With my little Arrow fully loaded (all 4 seats filled), it wasn’t climbing out as fast as I wanted it to. I was nervous. For the first time, I was thinking, “what if we don’t make it”. With a little bit of light from the moon I could see the outline of the trees on nearby hillsides, but in the pitch black I had no idea where I was in relationship to the ones below me. To this day, I don’t know how close I came – maybe I cleared it by a lot, maybe just barely. I nursed the airplane to traffic pattern altitude. Maybe not the proper way to say it since it was my pride that was hurt and not the plane. In the darkness I hadn’t been able to find the override switch and had decided to focus on just flying the airplane. I leveled off and waited for the airspeed to increase, then brought the gear up.

When I finally landed the second time around, I was close to shaking, and my friends had surprisingly landed ahead of us (that’s another story I may have to tell later).

I had always been warned about the ominous “black hole”, but I had always wondered why anyone made a big deal about it.

After all, could it really be a problem for such a great pilot as myself?

Don’t let that happen to you, you may not be as lucky as I was.

The factors sure set me up for disaster – night time, in mountainous terrain, no lights, a full airplane, an incomplete knowledge of my airplane’s configuration, and my arrogance. Don’t be caught by surprise. Sometimes, situations are tougher than you think, and I’m still learning that!

To lend a word of advice from someone who has learned A LOT since then:

  • Avoid flying in the mountains at night (especially in a single engine airplane)
  • Don’t fly into an unfamiliar airport, in the mountains, at night
  • Don’t put yourself in a situation where you’ll be testing the limits of your airplane with friends on board (or anyone for that matter!)
  • Know the airplane you’re flying! (V-speeds, controls and knobs, etc)
  • FLY the airplane!
    • Just about the only thing I can be proud about from that night, if that, was the fact that I kept flying the airplane – I didn’t get too slow despite the terrain I knew was ahead, and I knew when to quit fiddling around with controls inside the airplane and just concentrate on the most important aspect…controlling the airplane.

Fly smart and you’ll be able to talk about it.

Have you ever been in a similar situation or ever doubted the outcome of a fight? What happened? Do you have any words of advice?

Fly safe,
Up in the Air

Originally Written: April 29, 2010 // Rewritten: April 25, 2012

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Why the Rules?

Astounded. Frustrated. Concerned.

So many feelings running through my brain, and yet not one of them could I verbalize! What is there to do when the person whose life is entrusted to me calls the rules stupid?

Just as I think I can call myself an “experienced” instructor, I get a wake up call! Nothing really prepared me for what I heard, but perhaps out of stress from his impending checkride or perhaps out of honesty, my student exclaimed in the middle of our pre-checkride ground session, “These rules are stupid! Why do I need to know these rules? I did not study for my driver’s test, why do I need to study these rules for flying? What about the Pilot Operating Handbook? What is this? Why do I need this chart, and why do people need to know this?! I do not even know the horsepower of my car…” and so on.

It is one of the most frustrating experiences I have had so far – to sit there and look at someone with the desire to scream at them, to yell something, anything that would make them see the light and not being able to. Not able to form the sentences nor the words needed to convey the important response. I wanted to smack myself! Okay him too…

This is my best attempt to answer, from the comfort of my computer chair:

Before I dive in, I’d like to take a side-road for a moment – if you lived where I live right now, you’d know that the remark about the driver’s license test/rules doesn’t mean much. Half the people don’t have a license and the other half seem like they neither like driving nor spend much time doing it…perhaps myself included?! Okay, whew I feel better…I hate days like these.

Yes, driving has it’s rules and often the importance of following these rules is undervalued. They of course should be followed, but to stay on topic…

Most, if not ALL Federal Aviation Regulations (the “rules” as my student so eloquently put it) relate directly to safety! To make it perfectly simple (and how I wish I could have put it for my student), not following the rules will kill you! In addition, knowing them and ignoring them is just as much of a problem as not knowing them. It scares me, more so saddens me, to think of the people that do not respect the rules. The rules are there for a reason, and they were created from the blood of others. They would not be there otherwise.

When I was first learning to fly I used to have a “competition” with a classmate in my ground school. We sat right next to each other and always compared our scores on our tests (he always seemed to do better!). He usually had a score in the high 90s, a very bright, smart young kid…he apparently “knew his stuff.” He went out one December night, on a night I vividly remember as blizzard-like, and went flying (some of us already had our licenses before attending this ground school). The next day in class he was not there and we all found out from the professor that he had gone flying the previous night – both him and a buddy of his were killed. What happened? This smart, knowledgeable classmate had killed himself and his friend. He would have been the last person I expected that to happen to. He knew the rules, he knew what they meant….why did he go? He couldn’t have gone…

But it did happen to him, and it can happen to anyone with or without the knowledge of the rules. With this knowledge there needs to be respect, and by respecting the rules one respects flying, and when one respect’s flying, one respects his own life and that of those who would fly with him.

I wish I had a good answer for every question – I know it will come with experience. Until then…

Flying can kill, but in my opinion a respect for ourselves and what we do is the #1 antidote. Knowing and following the rules is all part of it.

Fly safely,
Up in the Air