I am feeling quite lucky, confident a guardian angel is watching over. You know when you see something in the news about an accident, and it is so clear that those involved were doing something destined for a bad outcome, and ponder, “What were they thinking?” This was one of those times.
Lou and I went to Cape Cod in our new plane for my birthday. It was my first flight in the Trinidad TB-20, a 5-seater from France, maroon and white, with low wings, retractable gear, and gull-wing doors like a DeLorean.
We spent the day at the beach and stopped on our way back to visit Nico and Mia at a family outing in the Catskills. We landed at a rural private airport and hung out for a few hours. We could have stayed over, but Lou wanted to go home. When we returned to the tiny airport, nobody was there, and the runway lights couldn’t be operated by radio control. Lou insisted that it was fine but suggested that Nico help by parking his car with the headlights on at the end of the runway.
We took off and over the car just fine, but once we were away from the car’s makeshift beacon, it was pitch black. From my window, I could still see Nico’s headlights behind us and to my right. Through the front window, I saw a strange light off to the right, and asked Lou what it was. Then suddenly, the only thing I could see through the windshield was leaves. Lou was looking down at something when I pointed ahead and blurted, “trees!” He adjusted course and once again, it was pitch black outside. But there were only a few seconds of darkness until the view through the windshield was leaves. Not a mass of green trees in the distance, but individual leaves gleaming in the plane’s small light. Again, I pointed, and said, “trees!” And again, he adjusted course, and we were drenched in blackness.
Neither of us remembered a mountain that close to the runway, and we have no idea how we could have gotten so far off course so quickly. When Lou later called Nico to see what he thought of the takeoff, he said he couldn’t see much but that it seemed fine. Lou didn’t admit what happened. We realized that flying on a moonless night over an unlit area is pretty much the same as flying in bad weather or clouds. With any major incident, it isn’t usually just one thing, but the culmination of many converging factors. Let’s count up the strikes: Newly licensed private pilot with low hours of flying time. No instrument training. Pilot not experienced with new complex aircraft. Unfamiliar airport. No operating navigation lights at airport. Dark. Rural area with no ground lights for reference. No moonlight. Dark. Mountainous terrain, Dark. Personally, I’d add in cocky pilot who thinks he can make no mistakes. Today, I think he sees the same thing, but he faults the training process for not making it clear that nighttime VFR flying can be nearly impossible in really dark situations.