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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

Dark spiral

The short days of winter mean pilots are more likely to be flying after dark--an experience that can be both beautiful and challenging. The FAA defines night currency in terms of takeoffs and full-stop landings, but the en route part of night flying can get tricky as well. Cruising above sparsely lit terrain on a moonless night is tantamount to flying in IMC. A VFR-only pilot can quickly become disoriented, sometimes with tragic results.

On January 7, 2005, a Piper PA-28-181 Archer crashed in a sparsely populated area near Bradley, South Carolina. The accident site was approximately nine miles from the departure airport, and VFR conditions prevailed. The noninstrument-rated pilot and three passengers were killed.

At about 6:45 p.m., the flight departed McCormick County Airport in McCormick, South Carolina, for a short trip to Greenwood County Airport, 21 nautical miles to the north. After takeoff, the aircraft flew over the Sumter National Forest, a relatively unpopulated area with few ground lights. The waning crescent moon had yet to rise. There were broken clouds at 2,200 feet agl and an overcast layer at 3,400 feet. Visibility was 10 miles.

At 6:56 p.m., the local 911 operator received a call regarding a downed airplane. Witnesses said that prior to impact, the aircraft sounded "as if in distress...[with] the engine idling high." The wreckage was found in a wooded area about halfway between the departure airport and the intended destination.

The impact scar and debris field were consistent with a steep-angle, high-speed descent. Investigators found no evidence of mechanical malfunction. The NTSB concluded that the pilot lost control of the airplane because of spatial disorientation, which resulted in an uncontrolled descent and ground collision. The dark night conditions were cited as a factor in the accident.

The FAA's advisory circular on spatial disorientation describes some of the challenges of flying after dark: "Lack of natural horizon or surface reference is common on overwater flights, at night, and especially at night in extremely sparsely populated areas or in low-visibility conditions. A sloping cloud formation, an obscured horizon, a dark scene spread with ground lights and stars, and certain geometric patterns of ground lights can provide inaccurate visual information for aligning the aircraft correctly with the actual horizon. The disoriented pilot may place the aircraft in a dangerous attitude."

In addition to spatial disorientation, the challenges of night flying include unseen obstructions, "black hole" approaches, and limited options in the event of engine failure. According to data from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's accident database, the fatal VFR accident rate more than doubles after nightfall. Pilots should not necessarily be discouraged from flying at night, but it's important to be aware that the risk goes up when the sun goes down. Night flying demands more attention, and it requires pilots to be keenly aware of--and to operate safely within--their limitations and abilities.

For more information, visit the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's "Flying Night VFR" Safety Hotspot.

An aviation technical writer with the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Carl Peterson creates interactive courses and other safety education materials for the aviation community. He has been flying since 1989.

By Carl Peterson

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