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Nighttime Crash Highlights The Dangers of Disorientation


We're all taught during training to be aware of nighttime disorientation. But unless you fly frequently at night in dimly lit areas, it's hard to truly grasp how disorienting total darkness can be.

Challenging Nighttime Conditions

On February 12th, 2016, at about 18:50 Central Standard Time, a Piper PA28 Warrior crashed during an approach to the Destin Executive Airport, Florida (KDTS). At this time of year in Florida, sunset took place roughly 1 and a half hours before the crash. The pilot flying was a non-instrument rated private pilot with one passenger on board.

A witness, who was also approaching the airport in a private aircraft, reported that conditions were "extremely bumpy" below 300 feet. The weather reported at DTS at the time of the accident included clear skies and wind from 240 degrees at 7 knots gusting to 15 knots.


Tailwind On Base

As the pilot of the Piper Warrior approached DTS, he had difficulty managing the gusty crosswind on his base-to-final turn for Runway 32. On the first attempt, he overshot the final approach course and announced on the CTAF frequency that he was going around. "Radar track data depicted the airplane crossing the approach end of the runway and then turning upwind on the far side of the runway. The airplane continued in a left circuit around the airport, and its altitude varied between 500 and 700 ft above ground level" (NTSB).


Leaving The Traffic Pattern

Once the traffic pattern was complete, the pilot initiated a left base turn to try again. The airplane stopped its turn early and flew through the final approach course a second time as it tracked parallel to the coast. This time, instead of completing another left pattern around the airport, the airplane turned right, away from the lighted airport and out over open, dark water with no visible horizon. It's presumed that the pilot anticipated overshooting final yet again, and decided to try a different strategy.

"The last radar targets showed the airplane over the water in a descending right turn toward the airport, with the last target at 175 ft above the water, and 128 knots groundspeed" (NTSB).


How Illusions Played A Role

As a non-instrument rated pilot, the NTSB determined probable cause to be: "the pilot's decision to turn the airplane away from the lighted airport at low altitude, over water, with no visible horizon, in dark night conditions, which resulted in spatial disorientation and a loss of airplane control." According to the witness flying into DTS, the pilot's last radio call announced he would be "circling somewhere."

When flying into an airport that has very few ground features around it, you'll get the illusion that you're higher than you actually are. That's because the airport looks like an island of bright lights, with nothing but darkness around it. Pilots tend to fly lower approaches into these kinds of airports, hence the name "black hole effect". The darkness sucks you in, and if you aren't careful, it can cause you to crash short of the runway.


The aircraft impacted the water at a high speed, suggesting that the pilot had no last-second visual cues that they were too low. Most likely, during that right hand turn back towards the airport, the pilot looked away from the altimeter to focus on finding the runway for their approach. Over open water with no lights, except those on the shoreline and by the airport, it's easy to see how easy it would've been to become disoriented.

To prevent a nighttime accident like this, don't try a non-standard maneuver that you're unfamiliar with. Instead, go-around, adjust your pattern, and try again.

What else can we learn from this accident? Tell us in the comments below.

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