August 30, 2013
By Dan Namowitz
It’s roughly a 90-mile flight from Hartness State Airport in mountainous Springfield, Vt., to Beverly Municipal Airport in coastal Massachusetts. The single-pilot night IFR flight had been conducted mostly in cloud; now it was established on the localizer for the LOC RWY 16 approach.
The aircraft broke out at about 2,000 feet, and from eight miles out, the pilot could clearly see the approach lights. The last transmission from the aircraft before it contacted trees on short final was the pilot canceling the IFR flight plan.
Accidents fitting this general profile often leave investigators to surmise the circumstances and motivations that cause a pilot to “continue the approach below minimums without the proper visual references, resulting in the subsequent collision with terrain.” That’s because fatalities are such a common consequence.
The Beverly case was unusual: not only were there no fatalities, there wasn’t an accident. Seconds before the aircraft overflew the approach lights, "there were two whooshes and an expletive," the pilot reported in a filing with the Aviation Safety Reporting System. "I had struck the tops of trees. A normal landing followed."
Looking up obstacles and other need-to-know details about the approach to Beverly’s runway 16 reveals interesting details, including a nonstandard medium intensity approach lighting system, and this note: "Thld dsplcd 239.´ Trees."
Any instrument pilot can be grateful to the pilot for making good use of the opportunity to share a story that underlines the less-than-obvious point that visual references aren’t always a superior option to the instrument approach procedure you may abandon for them.
Ironically, "If conditions had been IMC down to minimums there would have been no incident because I would have followed the procedure."
The brush with Beverly’s botanical boundary betrays another blunder associated with making the delicate transition from instrument to visual references: the pilot may abandon the instruments completely.
Pondering causes, the pilot proposed a brief speculation that the brightness of the approach lights had foiled attempts to judge the height of the aircraft above terrain (which was sometimes possible, the pilot said, in the glow of the aircraft’s landing light). But a more proven method of judging aircraft height above the 107-foot-msl-elevation airport—scanning the altimeter—was not discussed.
"The lesson is an old one. Night vision is night vision," the pilot said, vowing in the future to follow IFR procedures all the way down.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.
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