The black hole

The UPS A300F accident at night on final for Birmingham Alabama raises again the issue of that visual illusion  known as a “black hole approach”. David Kaminski-Morrow examines this issue as it relates to the Birmingham approach, because the National Transportation Safety Board is trying to understand how an apparently serviceable aircraft got so low that it hit the ground well before the runway end.

The absolute example of a black hole approach is what a Navy pilot experiences on approach to an aircraft carrier on a black, moonless night. Even in perfect visibility, there are no visual cues outside the aircraft, and the only thing in sight is the carrier’s deck lighting, looking impossibly tiny in the distance.

Helicopter pilots experience the same phenomenon approaching a maritime oil platform’s landing deck on an inky night. The powerful associated illusions have sucked helicopters into the sea’s invisible surface in the North Sea, Morecambe Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

The most perfect experience of a classic black hole approach for me was at the former RAF base at Gan.

Gan is a small island in the Addu atoll of the Maldive islands in the southern Indian Ocean. Its 2,000m runway is stretched fully across the island with a beach at either end.

As a new C-130 copilot I was fascinated by approaching Gan for the first time. The night was black, but the visibility so perfect that, at FL270,  we could see Gan, a dot of light, more than 100nm away, about the same time the needles on the ADI began to swing as the navaids came into range. There was nothing else. That dot could have been a star in the sky because there was no sense of being higher than it. And it just stayed there as we droned closer with no sense that we were actually moving.

The descent could not be made visually because there was nothing to see. The top of descent point and rate of descent to achieve ILS intercept was calculated and we stuck rigidly to it. The whole experience, even during the orderly ILS descent toward the runway, the VASIs twinkling beside it, had a mesmeric quality. You had to wake up to remember to flare when  the runway suddenly rushed up to meet you.

Black hole approaches are real. The phenomenon, because of Birmingham runway 18′s dark, featureless approach and simple edge lighting may turn out to be a significant contributory factor in the UPS accident causes.

PS: in a tweeted response, Capt. Mike @MiGeO_UK commented: “Offshore night landings are something else. Don’t think I’ll ever get used to them. I have to do them tho.” He flies offshore oil support in Thailand.

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