Night IMC kills three

This July 2010 accident report is provided by the National Transportation Safety Board. Published as an educational tool, it is intended to help pilots learn from the misfortunes of others.

Aircraft: Piper Cherokee. Injuries: 3 Fatal. Location: North Myrtle Beach, S.C. Aircraft damage: Destroyed.

What reportedly happened: The pilot, who had logged 640 hours, received a one-hour “checkout” with a CFI on July 6, 2010, so that he could rent the airplane. He was supposed to fly again, solo, on July 12, to satisfy night currency requirements, however, he canceled that flight due to adverse weather. He rented the Cherokee on the day of the accident, with the stipulation that he return it by 8:30 p.m., which was the onset of night, due to his lack of night currency.

The first leg of the flight was uneventful, but the pilot’s return was delayed because of adverse weather. He had an instrument rating but was not instrument current. According to his logbook, his total actual instrument experience was 24.1 hours and his total simulated instrument experience was 69 hours. His most recent actual instrument experience was 0.5 hours on Feb. 8.

On the day of the accident, he received a standard weather briefing from flight service personnel for an IFR return flight. The weather briefer advised of a convective SIGMET along the coast, with the largest cell just west of the departure airport. The briefer recommended either a northeast departure or a southwest departure, to remain clear of the large cell, before flying to the west on-course to the destination airport. The recorded weather at the departure airport included a broken ceiling at 1,100 feet, overcast ceiling at 2,000 feet, and a remark of distant lightning west of the airport.

Review of radar data revealed that convective weather, with associated strong intensity echoes, was present about 12 miles west of the departure airport. After takeoff, the airplane turned left about 180° and proceeded northeast along the coast. The radar track then varied between north and northeast until about five minutes when the airplane reach a altitude of 2,300 feet MSL and began a right descending turn. The last radar target was recorded about five miles northeast of the departure airport, indicating an altitude of 1,800 feet. The Piper crashed into a home and burned.

Although the official end of civil twilight occurred one minute after the accident, the combination of a dark dusk sky, multiple cloud ceilings, precipitation, and the distraction of maneuvering around a large convective cell would have been challenging for a pilot with limited recent actual instrument experience.

Probable cause: The pilot’s failure to maintain aircraft control while maneuvering in IMC around a thunderstorm. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s lack of recent actual instrument experience.

For more information: NTSB Identification: ERA10FA359


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