Darkness leads to spatial disorientation

Aircraft: Cessna 182. Injuries: 2 Fatal. Location: Erwin, N.C. Aircraft damage: Destroyed.

What reportedly happened: The private pilot, 79, held an instrument rating. According to a logbook recovered from the wreckage, he had accumulated 1,973 hours. In the 12 months preceding the accident, he logged 12 total hours of flight experience, of which 0.2 hours were at night, and two hours of which were in simulated instrument meteorological conditions.

No flights were recorded after Nov. 12, 2010. The most recent flight review endorsement found in the logbook was dated Oct. 18, 2006, and no endorsements for an instrument proficiency check were found anywhere in the log.

Before the accident flight, the pilot called Flight Service for a weather briefing. He informed the briefer that he thought the flight would take approximately five hours. During the nine-minute conversation, the briefer informed the pilot of thunderstorm activity over much of the proposed route of flight. The briefer advised that the forecast weather over Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia was not favorable to flying, and recommended that the pilot fly south before turning to the east to avoid the majority of the thunderstorm activity.

During the flight the pilot was offered and accepted radar flight following services, and stated that his destination was Columbus Metropolitan Airport (CSG), Columbus, Georgia, and that he planned to fly at an altitude of 5,500 feet during the flight. ATC subsequently issued the pilot a transponder code of 5601, and the flight departed at 1721.

At 1723, the pilot contacted the departure controller and was radar identified. About eight minutes later, the controller advised the pilot of multiple areas of precipitation with an unknown intensity over the next 50 miles, and offered to provide the pilot with radar vectors around the weather. The pilot acknowledged the offer, but made no further requests for vectors around weather.

At 1741, the pilot contacted the departure controller to inquire about the weather conditions, but the controller advised that the pilot was unreadable, and asked him to switch to a different transmitter. At 1743, the pilot contacted the controller again, with an improved quality transmission. He reported that he had “broken out” into marginally good weather conditions. The controller further advised of precipitation along the intended route of flight.

At 1744, the controller asked the pilot to report the cloud conditions in his area, and the pilot replied. The departure controller then provided the pilot with a frequency on which to contact the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center. The pilot initially read back an incorrect frequency before repeating the correct frequency.

After the pilot had not contacted the Atlanta ARTCC by 1754, the departure controller attempted to contact the pilot and again provide him with the frequency. There was no response and no further communications were received from the pilot for the remainder of the flight.

ATC continued to track the flight, and made numerous attempts to contact the pilot. The airplane arrived in the vicinity of the destination airport nearly one hour after the end of civil twilight and began maneuvering in the vicinity of the approach end of one of the runways. After performing two 180° turns, the airplane entered a steep, descending right turn toward the runway’s final approach course. The airplane crashed in trees a half mile from the runway with the wreckage path roughly aligned with the runway’s final approach course.

There was no evidence of any pre-impact mechanical malfunctions or failures.

The airplane’s audio panel microphone selector was found set to a position that would not have allowed the pilot to communicate with controllers or to activate the airport’s pilot-controlled runway lighting. A pilot who flew into the airport later that night described that area as a very disorienting “black hole” due to the lack of ground lighting at night.

The maneuvering observed as the airplane arrived in the vicinity of the airport suggested that the pilot may have been attempting to activate the airport’s pilot-controlled lighting and locate the runway. The pilot was likely unable to activate the lighting due to an inadvertent misconfiguration of the audio panel earlier in the flight.

Investigators suggested that after flying through the final approach course twice, the pilot may have elected to attempt to locate the unlit runway using the airplane’s landing light, the airplane’s onboard GPS, and/or the airport’s precision approach path indicator lights as a guide. However, as he turned the airplane toward the dark area located southwest of the runway threshold, he likely experienced spatial disorientation, lost awareness of the airplane’s attitude, and allowed it to enter a right descending spiral, which continued to impact.

Probable cause: The pilot’s loss of control due to spatial disorientation while maneuvering in dark night conditions.

NTSB Identification: ERA11FA412

This July 2011 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.



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