Francis Scott Key might have penned “The Star-Spangled Banner” by the light of bombs bursting in air over Fort McHenry, but the rockets’ red glare can be far less inspiring to a pilot attempting to find an airport at dusk. An aviator robbed of night vision by the intense light of fireworks can quickly become disoriented. And if the airplane he’s flying has very little fuel and no landing light, you’ve got the makings of an Independence Day mess.
On July 4, 2004, the 850-hour pilot of an Aeronca Champ was temporarily blinded by nearby fireworks as he approached Fort Worth Spinks Airport near Fort Worth, Texas. During an emergency nighttime landing in a field west of the city, the aircraft hit an obstruction and was substantially damaged. The pilot escaped injury.
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The Aeronca had departed Lawton-Fort Sill Regional Airport near Lawton, Okla., at approximately 7:15 p.m. The flight proceeded without incident until the aircraft was nearing Fort Worth Spinks Airport, the intended destination, shortly after the 9 p.m. closing time for the control tower. The sun had set nearly a half hour earlier. The airplane was not equipped with a landing light.
As the aircraft approached the airport, a nearby fireworks display began. The pilot later reported that the intense glare from the fireworks made it impossible for him to distinguish the airport. He stated that he was low on fuel and did not want to have to “dead stick” the Aeronca into a populated area, so he flew west away from the city.
After locating a large area with no lights, the pilot circled the area twice trying to detect obstacles in the increasing darkness. At 9:10 p.m., after completing a final circle, he lined up with the field and looked through the side window on final to observe the ground. When the airplane was approximately 10 feet above the ground, it collided with an obstruction hidden by tall grass. The aircraft eventually rolled to a stop.
Despite substantial damage to the Aeronca, the pilot walked away from the accident. Many nighttime off-airport landings don’t end so fortunately. NTSB investigators cited the pilot’s inadequate preflight planning and preparation as the cause of the mishap. Night conditions and the lack of suitable terrain for landing were contributing factors.
The Aeronautical Information Manual states that our eyes require up to 30 minutes of exposure to total darkness to adapt completely. Once night vision is established, it can be lost entirely within a few seconds of viewing a bright light. According to the accident pilot, the fireworks display created a glare so intense and disorienting that he could not locate the nearby airport. The best options at that point might have been to divert to an airport with an operating control tower and request ATC assistance, or fly away from the source of the glare and return 30 minutes later—with the pilot’s night vision restored and the fireworks show likely over. But insufficient fuel took those options off the table.
According to FAR 91.151, “No person may begin a flight in an airplane under VFR conditions unless (considering wind and forecast weather conditions) there is enough fuel to fly to the first point of intended landing and, assuming normal cruising speed, (1) during the day, to fly after that for at least 30 minutes; or (2) at night, to fly after that for at least 45 minutes.” The AOPA Air Safety Foundation recommends a “golden hour” of reserve fuel, regardless of light conditions.
An extra 30 to 45 minutes in the tank would have saved this pilot a lot of aggravation. Moreover, given the airplane’s lack of a landing light, an earlier departure would have been wise. The pilot could have arrived before dark and enjoyed the pyrotechnic display from a preferred vantage point—oohing and aahing while safely on the ground.