This October 2007 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.
Location: Walthourville, Ga.
Injuries: 2 Fatal.
Aircraft damage: Destroyed.
What reportedly happened: The non-instrument-rated pilot was flying at night in marginal VFR conditions. The pilot, who had logged 238 hours, including 150 in the Cherokee, had flown 66.9 hours at night. He had never logged any instrument time in actual conditions, but had 1.2 hours of simulated instrument time.
On the evening of the accident the pilot received a weather briefing before departing. The briefer encouraged the pilot to obtain an updated briefing en route because the weather was expected to get worse. Prior to departure, the passenger called a person at their destination and told them they were aware of the marginal weather, and would arrive in about two hours. The plane landed at an intermediate airport en route but the pilot did not obtain an updated weather briefing. The aircraft departed again.
During the flight the pilot utilized flight following. The airplane was in cruise flight at 3,500 feet when the controller informed the pilot that the airport was at his 12 o’clock position, at a distance of five miles. The pilot reported the airport was in sight and flight following was terminated. There was no further radio communication with the pilot. Instead of heading directly to the airport, the pilot initiated a descending turn to the right. The weather at the destination airport was reported as overcast clouds at 2, 200 feet, broken clouds at 1,000 feet, scattered clouds at 500 feet, and few clouds at 200 feet. A review of radar data revealed the airplane made several descending turns, with the last radar contact at 300 feet above terrain. The airplane hit trees about one mile from the airport.
No pre-crash mechanical malfunctions were discovered during the investigation. It was determined that clouds in the vicinity of the airport caused the pilot to be unable to distinguish ground cues that would have helped him determine the airplane’s attitude, resulting in spatial disorientation.
Probable cause: The non-instrument-rated pilot’s loss of control at night in marginal night VFR operations due to spatial disorientation. A factor in the accident was the pilot’s improper decision to continue the flight in deteriorating conditions.
For more information: NTSB.gov