According to the operator/owner, the non-instrument-rated pilot was visiting the United States on vacation and had rented the Piper PA-28-161 for a week. The pilot planned a day trip to an airport located about 2.5 hours from the airplane’s home base, and the accident occurred on the return leg near Stuart, Fla.
After departing on the return leg, the pilot contacted air traffic control and requested flight-following services for the planned flight route, which was just offshore of the southeastern coast of Florida.
About 1.5 hours into the flight and almost an hour after sunset, the pilot heard another pilot, who was operating on the same radio frequency, request an instrument flight rules clearance to an airport that was between his position and his intended destination.
He then requested an update of the current weather conditions at his destination, and a controller advised that an overcast ceiling of 600 feet prevailed.
When the pilot requested the weather conditions for a slightly closer airport, the controller advised that there were scattered clouds at 700 feet and an overcast ceiling at 1,000 feet. He advised the controller that he intended to divert the flight to the closer airport.
As the flight continued, the pilot discussed the weather conditions with a controller, noting that the cloud ceiling was “pretty low” and that he couldn’t “get a real handle on the ceiling.”
The controller then asked the pilot what altitude he could maintain, and he responded “700 feet.” After transitioning to an area without low-altitude radar coverage, the pilot advised that he was flying at an altitude of 450 feet.
An air traffic controller then advised the pilot that flight-following services were not available at that altitude, and, after flight-following services were terminated, no further radio communications were received from the pilot.
The owner reported the airplane missing when it did not return later that evening as scheduled, and personal effects and airplane wreckage began washing ashore the following morning in the vicinity of the flight’s last known position.
No radar coverage was available in the area where the accident likely occurred, therefore, the exact sequence of events that resulted in the airplane’s ultimate impact with water could not be determined. However, the condition of the recovered wreckage was consistent with water impact at a significant velocity.
The weather forecast at the pilot’s original destination airport at the time of his departure indicated that marginal visual meteorological conditions (VMC) would prevail at the time of his anticipated arrival. As the flight progressed, the conditions en route and at the destination eventually deteriorated below VMC, and, as noted, the pilot discussed the deteriorating weather conditions with the controller several times.
Although the reported visibilities in the area were favorable, the flight was conducted on a dark, moonless night under an overcast ceiling, over the ocean, and off a relatively sparsely populated area of the coast. These factors would have reduced the pilot’s ability to perceive the natural horizon and increased his risk of losing control due to spatial disorientation.
The pilot might have reduced this risk by diverting the flight earlier to a destination with more favorable weather and lighting conditions. However, he ultimately chose to divert to an airport that was only slightly closer than his original destination, which reported weather conditions at visual flight rules minimums.
At the time of the actual diversion, the airplane was passing within four nautical miles of a large international airport, which at the time was reporting a cloud ceiling higher than 4,000 feet. Even after this point, the pilot could have chosen to turn around and return to this airport rather than continuing the flight into deteriorating conditions.
The NTSB determined the probable cause as the non-instrument-rated pilot’s continued flight into dark night, instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in a loss of control due to spatial disorientation and subsequent impact with water.
NTSB Identification: ERA14LA117
This February 2014 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.