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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

Where am I?

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

The pilot departed Sheridan, Arkansas, at 8:30 p.m. The destination was West Memphis, Arkansas, approximately 200 nm 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, believing that 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, but he saw what he thought was an airport hangar and the airport environment.

At that point, the pilot could not see the runway threshold lights, but he later 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 struck an embankment, which spun the airplane around 180 degrees. The airplane came to rest in a flooded rice field. The accident site was six 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 total time, 30 of which were at night.

The NTSB determined the cause of this accident to be 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. In the online course Say Intentions, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation suggests 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 air traffic control.
  • communicate--transmit an emergency or urgent message and comply with ATC's instructions, if able.

Kristen Hummel manages the GA accident database for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. She holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings.

By Kristen Hummel

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