May 2018 Issue

Black-Hole Takeoffs

I read with interest the articles in April’s edition about “Low-Viz Takeoffs,” by Tom Turner, and the Accident Probe, “Black-Hole Approach.” I had a night takeoff about five years ago that combined both situations.

The Franklin County airport at Sewanee, Tenn., has a 3700-foot-long runway oriented 06-24, with the usual winds favoring 24. The runway is well-lit at night but has no approach lights because it is bounded on all sides by 40-to-50-foot-tall trees. On a beautiful but dark night that spring, after watching a University of the South lacrosse game, my wife and I were leaving for Nashville.

Upon taking Runway 24, my Mooney M20J’s landing light illuminated the runway well, and the runway lights showed the edges of the runway brightly. However, as I rotated to 10-degrees nose-up pitch, the routine takeoff became none of the sort. At that pitch attitude, the landing light was shining into the black nothingness, and the leading edges of my wings (Mooney M20J) completely blocked out the runway lights. I was now performing an instrument takeoff into the “black hole,” with tall trees at the end of the runway and on either side of me!

Fortunately, I flew in the Navy, and had plenty of night time over the ocean, so I immediately transitioned to the attitude indicator and DG. I’m not sure how far above the trees we passed, but based on my daytime departures, it was probably about 50 feet. Definitely a learning experience!

I agree with Mr. Turner—practicing instrument takeoffs with an instructor can come in handy when one least expects it.

Travis Brannon
Via email

Night instrument departures definitely can combine the worst of both worlds, and your experience highlights the correct procedure: Immediately transition to the flight instruments and ensure a positive rate of climb while maintaining the runway heading. We’re glad everything worked out.


Engine Failure Likelihood

I notice something of an emerging theme in recent issues (February 2018’s Unicom and, especially, April 2018’s article by Mike Berry, “Minimizing The Risk Of Engine Failure,” about engine failures as an accident cause. Based on the NTSB and AOPA ASI data, the topic definitely is worth discussion. But there’s one thing I haven’t seen discussed: The data on engine failures is wrong. The data is wrong because many engine failures go unreported.

The NTSB data only includes events meeting its definition of an accident or incident. I presume the AOPA ASI data is drawn in whole or in part from the NTSB. As such, an engine failure that ends without serious injuries and little or no damage isn’t reportable to the NTSB.

The engine failures that are reported and used in analyzing GA safety are those in which the outcome involved substantial damage to the aircraft or serious injury to the occupants or someone on the ground, meeting the requirement to report the event to the NTSB. It’s obvious there’s a non-zero number of additional engine failures—in both singles and multi-engine airplanes—that are not included in the data and not considered in computing accident rates or likelihoods.

The best information available says full or partial engine failures happen more often than the official numbers reflect. The problem is we don’t know how often.

Bruce Mayhew
Via email

An excellent point, and one we’re aware of. Speaking only for ourselves, the partial engine failure we experienced several years ago ended without injury or damage. The airplane flew again, though only after cylinder work. Although the FAA was aware of the event, since it began under IFR and ended at a towered airport, there was not only no requirement but no real mechanism to report the circumstances to the NTSB. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.