Do you know where you are?

CHI03LA175

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AOPA Air Safety Foundation

Knowing where you are is always important, but it's especially important when flying cross-country at night. During a dark night cross-country flight on June 22, 2003, the pilot of a Cessna 210 became disoriented and hit terrain while attempting to land near Carlisle, Arkansas. The pilot was not injured, but the airplane was substantially damaged.

The flight departed Sheridan, Arkansas, at 8:30 pm. The destination was West Memphis, Arkansas, about 200 nautical miles away. During the flight, the pilot passed the City of Pine Bluff, Stuttgart Airport, and the City of Brinkley.

He then followed Interstate 40 toward Forrest City, thinking he saw the lights of Memphis in the distance.

The pilot contacted Memphis Center and requested radar vectors to West Memphis Municipal Airport. The communications were garbled, and positive contact was never established. The pilot also tried unsuccessfully to contact Memphis Approach.

He continued to follow the interstate until he saw what he thought was Airport Road, leading to the West Memphis Airport. He could not see the airport beacon, although he thought he could see the airport hangar and airport environment.

At that point, the pilot could not see the runway threshold lights, but told investigators he "felt very strongly" that the runway was below him. He turned on the landing light, set 30 degrees of flaps, and extended the landing gear. The left wing hit an embankment, which spun the airplane around 180 degrees. The airplane came to rest in a flooded rice field. The accident site was 6 miles from the closest airport (Carlisle Municipal) and 75 miles west-southwest of West Memphis Airport, his intended destination.

The pilot had more than 3,000 hours of total time, 30 of which were at night.

The NTSB determined the cause of this accident was the pilot's improper in-flight decision to descend for landing, at night, without the runway environment in sight. Factors included the pilot's disorientation and the dark night condition.

Although this pilot thought he knew his location, he was clearly lost. Good flight planning would have prevented this accident, but sometimes the unforeseen still happens. The AOPA Air Safety Institute suggests in its Say Intentions Online Course that lost pilots:

  • Climb — this will enhance communications, radar detection, and direction finding.
  • Squawk — 7700 if unable to establish communications, or your assigned discrete code if in contact with ATC.
  • Communicate — transmit an emergency or urgent message and comply with ATC's instructions, if able.

Accident reports can be found in ASI's accident database.