By David Kenny
One familiar piece of gallows humor tells pilots faced with a forced landing at night to turn on the landing lights—and then, if what’s revealed isn’t inviting, turn them off again. That’s about as close as you’re likely to come to finding a situation in which you’d be grateful not to see what you’re about to hit. In general, conditions that are marginal in the daytime don’t become any more manageable after dark. Case in point: Trying to slip between low ceilings and rolling terrain is asking for trouble even when there’s enough light to see where you’re going. Trouble is just about guaranteed if you decide to go scud-running at night.
During the evening of Nov. 21, 2010, a Piper PA24-260 Comanche hit a treetop near Norfolk, Neb. The collision nearly separated the right wing from the fuselage; from there, pieces of the airplane and various personal effects were scattered over some 800 feet. The final impact broke the fuselage just behind the cabin and twisted the front section backward almost 180 degrees. The VFR-only private pilot and his passenger were both killed.
No one saw or heard the crash and the pilot was not in contact with air traffic control, so the exact time of the accident isn’t known. However, one possible witness told investigators that between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., she’d seen an airplane fly by so close to the ground that she told her husband, “Wow, that plane is really low. I hope it’s not going to crash.” She described the weather as “misty and cold,” adding, “I kept wondering why a plane would fly so low at night.”
Good question! The best available information suggests that the Comanche left Chamberlain, S.D., around 5 p.m. on a 210-nautical-mile flight to Millard Airport in Omaha. Weather in the vicinity was marginal VFR with 10 miles visibility under a 1,700-foot overcast. The sun set at 5:07 p.m., so the pilot had to anticipate making most of the flight in the dark. He did not file a flight plan and there is no indication that he ever sought a formal weather briefing, though it would have been a good idea: While Omaha was also MVFR at 1,500 overcast, Norfolk—about two-thirds of the way down the straight-line route—had been IMC all day, with ceilings between 700 and 900 feet and a two-point temperature/dew point spread.
Pilots who’ve done most of their flying in the Rockies (or even the Appalachians) might think of Nebraska as flat, but they wouldn’t mistake it for a billiard table. The terrain is gently rolling, with trees topping many of the ridgelines. There are also plenty of towers with heights ranging from 200 to more than 500 feet, considerably higher than the tree that actually snagged the airplane. Two of the taller ones stand about five miles northwest of the Millard airport, almost exactly on the Comanche’s line of flight.
Eventually the aircraft was reported overdue and an Alert Notice was issued. Searchers found the wreckage late the following afternoon. The gear and flaps were up and there was fuel in the tanks; a series of prop gouges in the ground and the resulting damage to the blades were consistent with the engine running at normal cruise power. There was no evidence of any engine malfunction before the crash, and the marks on the tree suggested that the airplane struck it in level flight. As the saying goes, chances are they never knew what hit them.
The record contains no indication of why the pilot chose to make that flight that night, but it does provide a little grist for speculation. The airplane was based in Omaha, and the accident occurred on Sunday night. If the pilot felt that he simply had to be home by Monday morning, he wouldn’t be the first to have forgotten that needing to get there doesn’t mean you actually can, or that an idea that’s bad in daylight doesn’t get better after dark.