The simple things

By David Jack Kenny

We’ve heard it said that it’s been a long time since anyone came up with a new way to crash an airplane. (Of course, that was before an Iowa crop duster flew into power lines while talking on his cellphone during a spray run.) While it’s true that the growing complexity of factory-installed avionics suites in recent years has led to an increasing number of crashes originating from errors in autopilot programming, the great majority of general aviation accidents still arise from a lack of attention to simple, basic things: essentials like airspeed, altitude, clearance from clouds, and the risk of unseen obstacles.

Just before 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 19, 2012, a fixed-gear Piper Cherokee 180 flew into a heavily wooded ridgeline about six miles southwest of the Simsbury, Conn., airport, killing the 73-year-old pilot and his only passenger. The accident occurred almost two hours after sunset and an hour and a half after the end of civil evening twilight; visibility was at least 10 miles and the skies were clear but dark, with a setting quarter moon providing little illumination. The state police helicopter pilot who helped locate the crash site with the aid of night vision goggles said he was surprised at just how dark the landscape was in the immediate vicinity.

The accident came at the end of a long day of flying and the second day of a long cross-country trip. The pilot and his passenger had left their home base at the Suwannee County residential airpark in northern Florida the previous afternoon and spent the night in Orangeburg, S.C. They’d left Orangeburg about 11:30 a.m. for Simsbury, where they planned to attend a funeral, making fuel stops at Petersburg, Va., and Pottstown, Pa. A fuel receipt from Pottstown puts their departure sometime after 4:36 p.m., at least 10 minutes after sunset.

The private pilot’s logbooks showed a total of almost 1,000 hours of which 128 were listed as having been flown at night. However, his only night time in the preceding year was a single hour flown the preceding April. This suggests that he might have grown a little out of practice at night flight (not to mention having exhausted his legal currency to carry passengers at night).

At 6:10 p.m. he contacted Approach Control at Bradley International, reporting that he was level at 2,500 feet msl inbound to Simsbury. That airport lies in a notch cut out of the west side of the core of Bradley’s Class C airspace; the overlying outer shelf of Class C has a 2,100-foot floor. Radar contact was made immediately. Four minutes later the controller asked him to report his destination in sight; five minutes after that he was instructed to maintain VFR at or below 3,000 feet. The pilot replied that he was still at 2,500 and then began to descend. The Cherokee was still roughly 10 miles from its destination.

Over the next two minutes, it descended to 1,900 feet msl, maintaining a constant airspeed and a steady ground track direct to the field. At 6:22, its airspeed slowed slightly and its rate of descent increased to 1,000 fpm while its ground track remained steady. Radar contact was lost at 6:24 p.m. at an altitude of 900 msl, just 70 feet above the elevation of the accident site. An alert notice was issued after the Cherokee failed to arrive.

The state police pilot who found the wreckage also reported that the only illumination near the scene came from pole lights in a brightly lit parking lot a mile farther east. It lay under the direct line from the Cherokee’s en route course to the Simsbury airport. The NTSB cited the Aeronautical Information Manual’s warning that “lights along a straight path can easily be mistaken for runway lights at night.” The possibility that the pilot mistook that parking lot for the runway is the only obvious explanation for his premature descent; ample fuel was on board, and the condition of the wreckage ruled out any engine or airframe failure. His lack of recent night experience wouldn’t have left him any less susceptible to its characteristic optical illusions.

The lessons offered by this tragedy are simple. Night flight should be planned with the same care as instrument flight, since in both cases you might not see what you’re about to hit. In an unfamiliar area, follow instrument procedures if you know how and they’re available (Simsbury doesn’t have any). If not, study the sectional, taking particular note of the height and location of obstructions along your route. Plan your descent to make certain you remain clear. And be sure you’ve positively identified the airport before setting up to land. You’d better see the beacon unless you’re aware that it’s been notamed out of service—itself a reminder that checking notams before a cross-country flight could possibly save your life.