Black holes – military aeronautics safety

Black holes – military aeronautics safety – Brief Article

Dave Hagginbothom

In a previous life as a C-21 instructor pilot, I thought I had just about seen it all … from St. Elmo’s fire to having to go around on short final because a rather large tortoise was on the runway. I have experienced a lot … from the leans during a 540-degree descending turn to other vestibular and somatosensory spatial disorientation episodes during acceleration and deceleration in instrument meteorological conditions. Despite this history and some 1,500 hours of flying time, I still was not prepared for my “near space” black hole encounter.

The black hole illusion has been cited in many approach-to-landing mishaps. It is usually associated with an approach at night over dark, featureless terrain with a strong (read bright) visual object existing beyond. Human nature is to focus on the distant visual object which usually sets up a lower than desired approach.

My copilot and I took off from Maxwell AFB, Ala., after dusk for a “milk run” shuttle flight to Eglin AFB, Fla. It was clear and a million weather. We could have flown the less than a half hour direct flight without navigational aids because of the perfect visibility and unmistakable ground lights below. We had a tally on the runway at least 30 miles out to the north. We could have easily reported base with gear out of a visual downwind, but the old Military Airlift Command regulations — yes, this was more than a little while ago — required us to request a precision approach. There was a land — versus sea — breeze which meant aircraft were landing to the north so we continued on a southerly radar downwind heading as we descended to glide slope intercept altitude.

The visual transition from overland to over water was sudden and dramatic. Although there was no discernable horizon to the south, the lights of Niceville and Ft. Walton Beach had given (past tense) us a definite attitude and altitude reference. A mere mile or two out over the Gulf, my transition to instruments, not to mention aircraft control, was rougher than usual. Another aircraft delayed our turn to base leg, but it was not long before we were configured, on airspeed, altitude, and localizer centerline, on about a 10-mile final to the runway.

I had flown a number of coupled approaches down to minimums, especially at Andrews AFB, Md., where the weather never seemed to drop below 200 and a half, but briefed the copilot that I would hand fly this Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach. Now headed northbound, the lights on the shoreline provided a somewhat better attitude reference than the indistinguishable black ocean and skies behind us, but I honestly could not have told you if our altitude was 100 feet, 1,000 feet or 10,000 feet above the waves. About 5 miles out, still feet wet, we intercepted glide slope and I began descending — relying upon what I did not recognize at the time was mostly visual cues (but not the visual approach slope indicator) from the runway — DANGER Will Robinson!

Crew Resource Management (CRM) had not been institutionalized yet, but I do know my “Situational Awareness” or “SA” got a rude awakening when the copilot politely queried if I was intending to fly the ILS or had — perhaps all on my own — decided to fly a localizer instead. Rapidly approaching a full dot below glide path, I forced myself to ignore everything outside the three-ply Plexiglas and focused 100 percent on getting back on glidepath while mentally admonishing myself for such a poor display of airmanship. The landing was uneventful, but the preceding “if not but for the grace of God — or in this case a sharp and unhesitant copilot” experience, which played out entirely in a mere matter of seconds, was one of the more sobering events in my aviation career.

Aerospace physiologists classify three types of spatial disorientation: incapacitating — the most rare; recognized — thanks to my copilot’s unashamedly better SA; and unrecognized — the most dangerous. So, regardless of your experience, if something looks or even feels unusual, always stay with the basics:

1. Fly instrument approaches with primary reference to your instruments until transitioning to land at the visual descent point or precision approach minimums.

2. Know your instrument approach — know which type of visual approach slope indicators are or are not available on all runways at your intended destination and alternate airports; and, most importantly, use them!

3. Brief and fly utilizing good inter- or intra-cockpit CRM skills. Aviation is not as inherently dangerous as it is unforgiving.

4. If you get spatial D’d — trust your instruments as you recognize, confirm, and recover from any unusual attitudes. Then, confess to yourself, your copilot, or your wingman. Finally, fly an autopilot-coupled approach, seek visual meteorological conditions to re-cage your gyros or transfer aircraft control to an unaffected pilot.

You might encounter this illusion –just as I did — during an over-water approach to Eglin, Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, or any number of other similarly situated airfields. Or it might happen to you during your next aerospace expeditionary force deployment over the “seas of sand” in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Be aware of and maintain a healthy respect for this and other similar hazards as you continue to


COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Department of the Air Force

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