The non-instrument-rated pilot contacted flight service to inquire whether the conditions for his 15-nm flight, planned for about one hour later, would be suitable for visual flight rules (VFR) operations.
He received an abbreviated briefing that included only the current conditions at both his departure and destination airports, both of which reported VFR conditions. He subsequently departed on the flight about three hours later.
About 10 minutes after takeoff in the Columbia Aircraft LC-41, after entering the controlled airspace of the destination airport, the pilot contacted air traffic control (ATC) and stated, “I need your help, sir.”
The controller queried the pilot as to his location, heading, and destination, and he replied with his destination, stating, “I just don’t have visibility.”
The controller asked the pilot whether he was declaring an emergency and advised that the destination airport was under instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). The pilot did not respond.
The pilot then stated that he would return to his departure airport and was advised by the controller to “squawk VFR.” The pilot acknowledged, and no further communications were received from him.
Radar data showed that the airplane, about the time of the last radio transmission, entered a descending right turn that continued until ground contact near East Patchogue, N.Y. Such a flight track is consistent with a somatogyral illusion known as the “graveyard spiral.”
Given the reported weather conditions in the area about the time of the accident, the pilot’s statement that he was experiencing reduced visibility, the fact that he did not hold an instrument rating, and the radar flight track of the airplane, it is likely he experienced spatial disorientation and a subsequent loss of control as a result of his continued VFR flight into IMC.
The extent to which the pilot may have used the airplane’s automation, including the autopilot system, could not be determined.
Recorded weather data and statements from pilots flying in the area about the time of the accident indicated that, although the departure airport was experiencing visual meteorological conditions, IMC prevailed for much of the area surrounding the destination airport. These conditions had not been forecast until just before the airplane’s departure.
Had the pilot received the forecast from flight service when he received the current weather, he would only have been informed of low-level scattered clouds at his destination.
Despite the discrepancy between the forecast and actual conditions present on the day of the accident, it should have been apparent to the pilot upon takeoff that the cloud ceilings and visibilities were below VFR minimums as the flight progressed.
Additionally, he could have obtained the automated weather report at the destination airport via radio shortly after departure, which would have informed him that the airport was experiencing IMC.
However, the pilot’s communication with ATC suggested that he was not aware of the weather conditions at his destination.
If he had declared an emergency and stated that he was not capable of instrument flight rules flight, he would have been provided priority handling and greater assistance from ATC.
Although he did indicate that he was experiencing reduced visibility conditions, he did not declare an emergency and did not provide any specific information about the conditions he was experiencing or his limitations as a non-instrument-rated pilot. In the absence of this information, the controller likely assumed that the pilot was able to maintain VFR flight and return to the departure airport as stated without any further assistance.
The NTSB determined the probable cause as the non-instrument-rated pilot’s encounter with instrument meteorological conditions and his decision to continue visual flight rules flight in instrument conditions, which resulted in a loss of control due to spatial disorientation.
NTSB Identification: ERA14FA292
This June 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.