John Belnap would have experienced a “black hole” of darkness within moments after taking off from Brookings, Ore., on the moonless night of July 4, when his Cessna 172 crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
The relatively inexperienced pilot from Grants Pass had some instrument training, but two veteran pilots with more than 75 years of experience between them doubt his ability to navigate safely in those conditions.
They believe it’s almost certain that Belnap, licensed to fly since 2014, experienced what’s called spatial disorientation, the same condition that caused John F. Kennedy Jr. to spiral into the Atlantic off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., exactly 17 years ago today.
“As soon as he got offshore, he’s looking at a black hole,” said Robert Katz of Dallas, Texas, a flight instructor and 35-year pilot who tracks plane crashes across the nation. He contacted the Daily Courier after reading of the Belnap crash. “No useful horizon at all. You don’t see a thing. There is no doubt in my mind this pilot became spatially disoriented.”
Belnap, 46, his son Max, 17, and friend Ryan Merker, 17, are presumed dead. The Belnap family, including wife Cheryl and three other children, had met John Belnap for Fourth of July festivities in Brookings.
Aside from personal effects and the nose wheel of the plane, the main wreckage has yet to be found from the crash, approximately a half-mile from shore at Lone Ranch Beach northwest of Brookings.
Once the wreckage is found, the National Transportation Safety Board will attempt to determine an official cause.
One of the few clues of the doomed flight came from a resident above Highway 101.
Debra Itzen of Brookings was tending to her horses when she saw the plane go right over her house at 11:15 p.m., only about 150 feet off the ground, headed for the ocean. She likely heard the crash off in the distance, but unable to see anything, she dismissed a “crunching” sound she heard to Fourth of July fireworks and didn’t learn of the crash until the next day.
Itzen said the Cessna flew low and slow, but with no signs the engine was straining, sputtering or stalling.
Chances are Belnap was straining to figure out up from down by then.
Spatial disorientation, commonly called vertigo, causes people to lose their bearings. It’s a conflict in the brain between what the eyes see and what the body feels.
“You get it as soon as you lose your horizon,” Katz said.
“You suddenly realize, ‘I don’t know what direction I’m facing. I don’t know if I’m going up or down, turning right or left,”‘ said Larry Graves, Josephine County airports manager and lifelong pilot. “It’s a fact, you can’t tell where that airplane is going unless you’re trained and have recent experience flying the plane on the instruments.”
Belnap did have some instrument training. Anyone with a pilot’s license, even at the “visual flight rules” level that Belnap was at, has to get three hours of training solely on the instruments.
He also had a smartphone application called ForeFlight with GPS, with some of the same capabilities as the standard “six-pack” of instruments on Cessna – air speed, attitude indicator, altitude, vertical speed, heading and turn coordination.
Jonathan Jenson, a fellow nurse anesthetist at Asante Three Rivers Medical Center who co-owned the Cessna with Belnap, said his friend was conscientious and safety minded. Belnap was well aware of the dangers, having lost his father and two younger siblings in a small plane crash in Arizona in 1982.
“He and I had those conversations many times, you have to learn to trust the instruments,” Jenson said. “My guess is he would have done that. When you find yourself in instrument conditions, you turn and rely on the instruments.”
Katz and Graves believe no matter the trust, and knowledge of the instruments, Belnap was a long shot in those conditions to keep the plane in the air. It takes 450 hours of instrument time to even qualify to take the test to be instrument-certified, Katz said.
“Three hours is just enough time combined with an iPad to fool a pilot into thinking he can handle this scenario,” Katz said. “Instructors fail to demonstrate to students the reality of just how fast the situation will deteriorate because (they feel like) it is ‘unpleasant’ for the student to experience.”
Graves said with no recent instrument experience or training, spatial disorientation can quickly cause a life-or-death situation.
“It’s a very difficult and challenging thing to do, especially if it catches you off guard,” he said.
Graves said he wouldn’t have made the flight from Brookings to Grants Pass that night, “and I’ve been flying for 40 years. I avoid those situations when I can.”
Making a turn over the ocean while gaining the required altitude to clear mountains later in the flight would have made the task even tougher, he said.
“One of the most difficult things to do under instrument conditions is to maintain a constant turn rate,” Graves said.. “You have to suspend your disbelief. You have to disregard what your brain is telling you and focus on the instrument panel.”
Belnap had flown at night before, Jenson said. He flew to Salinas, Calif., every month for work as a nurse anesthetist, often landing at night, but in a heavily populated, well-lit area.
Hours before the crash, Belnap talked to Jenson about not making the flight if weather conditions were poor, but they didn’t talk about darkness.
“The fact that it was a new moon made this one challenging,” Jenson said in retrospect. “Whether that had anything to do with it, we may never know. I still think the plane was mechanically sound. I’ve been over it and over it.”
Katz said spatial disorientation would have been a problem on the entire flight path to Grants Pass, which is mostly mountainous wilderness.
To add more context, Graves said flying just from Cave Junction to Grants Pass at night is a total instrument-only flight, and “you can’t fly it successfully looking for visual references.”
For Katz, it’s a classic example of overconfidence in an ability to fly, an especially challenging endeavor.
“In an airplane, what you see and feel is in conflict. Flying an airplane is like balancing on the head of a pin.
“Human beings do not have the natural capacity to maintain a physical sense of balance without a stable visual reference – either the natural horizon or an artificial horizon” via the attitude indicator, Katz said.
He said spatial disorientation probably happened extremely quickly to Belnap.
“This totally preventable scenario has occurred so many times throughout history that the NTSB has the investigation process down to a science,” Katz said. “The circumstances are almost identical to the JFK Jr. incident.
“I study these incidents every day. Pilots are not learning from the mistakes of others.”
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