Focus the same amount of care and attention to a low-visibility departure as you do an
From an NTSB Preliminary Report:
A Cessna Citation 525 (CJ4) was destroyed in a collision with Lake Erie shortly after takeoff from runway 24R at the Burke Lakefront Airport (BKL), Cleveland, Ohio. The pilot and five passengers are missing and presumed fatal. The Part 91 personal flight was in night visual meteorological conditions on an instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan to the Ohio State University Airport (OSU), Columbus, Ohio.
The pilot and passengers initially departed OSU about 1730 (EST) and arrived at BKL about 1800. They reportedly attended a sporting event before returning to the airport about 2230. The pilot requested his IFR clearance at 2247, followed by taxi clearance at 2251. At 2256 the pilot was holding short of the runway and ready for takeoff on Runway 24R. The controller cleared the pilot for takeoff and instructed him to turn right to a heading of 330 degrees and maintain 2,000 feet after departure. The pilot acknowledged the clearance. After takeoff the controller instructed the pilot to contact departure control; however, no further communications were received from the pilot.
ADS-B position data depicted the airplane entering a right turn shortly after crossing the runway departure threshold. The airplane became established on a magnetic course of 310 degrees at about 2257:28. During this time, the airplane reached an altitude of approximately 2925 feet MSL. About five seconds later the airplane entered a descending right turn that continued until the final data point at 2257:52, 1.83 miles northwest of BKL. The associated altitude was 775 feet MSL.
The pilot held a private pilot certificate with airplane single and multi-engine land, rotorcraft helicopter and instrument airplane category/class ratings. The pilot also held CE-510S and CE-525S type ratings. The pilot’s CE-525S type rating was added Dec. 8, 2016, in the accident airplane. The pilot subsequently completed a simulator-based recurrent training course Dec. 17, 2016 (12 days before his final flight).
Another NTSB Preliminary Report:
A Beech Bonanza impacted trees and terrain during initial climb near Knoxville, Tennessee. The pilot and passenger were seriously injured. Night visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the personal flight, which departed Knoxville Downtown Island Airport (DKX), Knoxville, Tennessee, destined for Moore-Murrell Airport (MOR), Morristown, Tennessee.
The pilot arrived at DKX around 0505 (CDT) to preflight. About 0530 the pilot and his passenger boarded the airplane. The pilot started the airplane and inserted his updated (GPS) data cards. He then taxied to the run-up area for runway 8. While taxiing he listened to DKX’s AWOS. The AWOS was transmitting that the ceiling was at 200 feet, “or something to that effect,” which the pilot “found to be untrue” since he could “look up at the sky and see stars.” This was also not compatible with his weather briefings from the night before or earlier the morning of the accident.
Once the airplane was airborne, and when the entire usable runway was behind him, the pilot raised the landing gear and checked his climb attitude and trim. This was all he could remember about the accident flight. Around 0630, the Morristown, Tennessee 911 communications center received a telephone call from the pilot reporting that he had crashed sometime after departure from DKX.
The airplane had impacted trees and vegetation at an altitude of approximately 10 feet above ground level, about 600 feet from the departure end of the runway. The airplane then impacted in an open field in a level attitude with the landing gear in the up position, and slid on its belly for another 500 feet before coming to rest. Impact with the ground was at high speed with the engine at takeoff power. Examination also revealed that the airplane was equipped with shoulder harnesses though neither the pilot nor passenger had used them.
The recorded weather at KTYS (approximately 11 nautical miles southwest of the accident site), approximately 28 minutes before the accident included calm winds, 10 miles visibility, patches of fog, few clouds at 100 feet, temperature 15 degrees C, dew point 14 degrees C, and an altimeter setting of 30.03 inches of mercury. At approximately 23 minutes after the accident KTYS reported exactly the same. Civil twilight began at 0710, with sunrise occurring 26 minutes later at 0736.
The pilot held a private pilot certificate and instrument rating. He had approximately 300 total flight hours, 190 in the accident airplane make and model.
And an NTSB Final (Probable Cause) Report:
A Beechcraft Baron 58 impacted trees and terrain in Palos Hills, Illinois. The private-rated pilot and two passengers sustained fatal injuries. Marginal night visual meteorological conditions prevailed. The flight originated about 2235 (CDT) from the Midway International Airport (MDW), Chicago, Illinois, and was en route to the Lawrence Municipal Airport, Lawrence, Kansas.
At 2228, the pilot contacted MDW controllers to obtain an instrument flight rules (IFR) clearance. The controller was not able to access the flight plan information and requested that the pilot provide him the information by radio transmission. The pilot queried the controller asking if it would be easier to take off under visual flight rules (VFR). The controller informed the pilot that if departing under VFR, he would only need the aircraft type information and the desired direction of flight. The pilot elected to provide the information and received a VFR clearance to depart MDW. During communications between the pilot and controllers, no clearance for flight in instrument conditions was authorized.
Radar data showed the airplane departed runway 22L at MDW and began climbing on runway heading (220 degrees). At 2238:01, the airplane had accelerated to a groundspeed of about 130 knots and climbed to an altitude of about 2200 ft MSL. When the airplane was about 3 nautical miles from MDW, it began accelerating and descending as it turned about 20 degrees to the left to a heading of 200 degrees, followed immediately by a turn to the right. By 2238:38, when the airplane was about 4.8 nm from MDW, the airplane had descended about 700 ft to an altitude of 1,500 ft MSL. The airplane then began climbing. As the climb was initiated, a left turn was also initiated. The left turn continued while the radius of the turn decreased until the end of the radar data. During the final left turn, the airplane initially climbed about 400 feet, descended about 400 feet, and then climbed again about 1,300 feet before reaching a peak altitude of 2,800 ft MSL at 2239:24. At this time the airplane was about 5.9 nm from MDW and about 0.1 nm from the accident site. The final radar data point was at 2239:29 at a recorded altitude of 2400 ft about 6 nm southwest of MDW. The calculated rate of descent between the final two radar points exceeded 5,000 ft per minute.
The pilot held a private pilot certificate with single-engine land, multiengine land and instrument airplane ratings. The pilot received his multi-engine rating about eight months earlier. He had 417 hours of total flight experience, including 114 hours of multiengine experience.
Lost in Practice
Instrument training and evaluation is weighted heavily toward arrival and approach procedures. We log the number and type of approaches we fly, and consider precisely flying an arrival procedure the ultimate test of our IFR ability — even if we let an autopilot do the job for us, albeit under the pilot’s watchful eye. Way down on the training/evaluation priorities list, however, is practice and proficiency in flying departure procedures.
Low-visibility takeoffs are lost in practice. We don’t spend much time training and reviewing them, and we don’t track our proficiency in low-vis departures by logging and tracking the number we fly or practice. When called upon to make an IFR or marginal VFR night takeoff, our skills are often far less polished, and we frequently have far less recent experience in flying the procedure.
Compounding the challenge of low-visibility and sometimes high-workload departures is a physiological hazard known as the “somatogravic” or “false climb” illusion. The Flight Safety Foundation identifies somatogravic illusion as the result of fluid moving in a pilot’s inner ear when an aircraft accelerates. We sense this motion as a pitching movement upward — a false sensation of climbing. Without a good natural horizon and if inattentive to or distracted from the instruments, this sensation can cause us to want to push forward on the yoke to “recover” from the false climb. They force the airplane downward because we think it is going up too steeply or too rapidly. I suspect this was a primary factor in the Bonanza’s early-morning dark IMC departure, and could have played a part in one or both of the other cited crashes.
In our three examples pilot fatigue is a big unknown. In both the Citation and Baron crashes, the owner-pilot flew a plane full of passengers to a sporting event in the early evening, then lost control during a late-night departure after the game. The NTSB has not published any data, but I’m betting these pilots didn’t get out of bed just before the trip. More likely they spent a full day at the office before going to the airport — crashing 15 or more hours after they woke up. In the early-morning Bonanza crash, again we have no idea, but a 5 a.m. airport showtime might mean the pilot had an abbreviated sleep period the night before.
Here’s a conundrum: you might be tired and a little worn-out by the time you begin an instrument approach at the end of a flight, but you have plenty of time to get “into the groove” and prepared for a low-visibility arrival. You have no way of knowing for certain you’re up to speed for an IMC departure, however, until you’re in the air and in the clouds, fairly slow while at a high angle of attack close to the ground. There isn’t any spool-up time before a low-vis takeoff to get the feel for the airplane, or to catch any missed briefing or checklist items.
A common personal minimum is to require weather to be at least circling minimums for takeoff, in part to provide a greater margin if you find yourself a little behind the airplane during this unpredictable spool-up time.
All three pilots had fairly low time in type. But the Citation and Baron pilots both passed check rides not too long before the crash. The CJ4 captain passed a stringent type rating less than two weeks earlier — arguably making him more proficient than many at the time. The Bonanza pilot likely passed his instrument checkride within the last 200 hours, although there’s no telling how many years had elapsed.
Regardless of a pilot’s experience, here are some ways to maintain control during a low-visibility departure:
Checks and flows. Use checklists and cockpit flow checks like you were taking a type rating checkride, every time you fly. Don’t take shortcuts — printed checklists and confirming visual checks are designed specifically to protect you when you are a little off your game and more likely to miss something.
Organize before you fly. Get everything set before you take off. Don’t think “I’ll update the FMS or program the GPS once I’m in the air.” Don’t take the runway for departure until all the set-up work is done.
Along these same lines, resist the temptation to expedite your departure in marginal conditions, especially at night, if you’re not able to get your instrument clearance right away. Not only does this put you in the air in what is likely for you an unusual and therefore stressful situation, but it almost guarantees you’ll be up there for some distance and some time before you can pick up your clearance. The most common reason for a clearance delay is the presence of other IFR traffic in the area that may further delay controllers from clearing you.
Brief the departure. Review the departure procedure and clearance with the same scrutiny you apply to an IFR approach. Brief yourself on the altitude, heading and expected route. If you’re departing on vectors, know the approximate heading to your first expected fix at all times, so when you’re cleared “direct to” or “own navigation” the required turn is not a surprise. If you’re following a SID or an Obstacle Departure Procedure, have it loaded into your nav system and know it before you climb as well as you know an ILS before you’d descend.
Fly what you briefed. “Plan your flight and fly your plan” works. Sure, ATC may throw you a curve. But vectors or updated clearances should be the only changes you need to process mentally — be prepared for everything else.
Sterilize the cockpit. Focus solely on the immediate task at hand when making a low-visibility departure. Don’t worry about rental cars or passenger relations or fiddling with radar displays until you are settled into cruise climb and well away from the airport.
We focus a lot of attention on approach and landing for good reason. But taking off into dark or soupy skies, then having a distraction of some sort, shouldn’t result in a perfectly functioning aircraft impacting terrain. Plan and execute your low-visibility departures with the same care and briefing you apply to a low-minimums approach, with the added knowledge that you never know for certain how up-to-speed you are until you’re already committed to flight.