The private pilot was flying along a shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico in dark night conditions, with a tailwind, on an extended left base leg for landing at the airport in Destin, Florida.
Witnesses reported the pilot announced a go-around on the airport’s common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF). Radar track data depicted the Piper PA-28 crossing the approach end of the runway and then turning upwind on the far side of the runway.
The airplane continued in a left circuit around the airport, and its altitude varied between 500′ and 700′ above ground level.
Radar then depicted a left turn in a location consistent with a left base turn for a second attempt at landing. However, the airplane stopped its turn early and flew through the final approach course a second time as it tracked parallel to the coast.
Instead of completing another left circuit around the airport, the plane turned right, away from the lighted airport and out over open, dark water with no visible horizon.
The last radar targets showed the airplane over the water in a descending right turn toward the airport, with the last target at 175′ above the water, and 128 knots groundspeed.
A witness, who was monitoring the CTAF as he approached the airport in his own airplane, reported that he heard the Piper pilot announce his positions as he circumnavigated the airport.
The pilot’s last radio call announced he would be “circling somewhere.” There were no further communications from him.
A post-accident examination of the airframe and engine revealed no preimpact mechanical anomalies that would have prevented normal operation of the airplane.
The tailwind encountered on the base leg of the traffic pattern likely contributed to the pilot flying the airplane through the final approach course on two consecutive approaches. The rapid turn and descent at low altitude away from the lighted airport at night, over dark water, with no visible horizon, was consistent with the noninstrument-rated pilot experiencing spatial disorientation and a loss of airplane control.
Probable cause: The noninstrument-rated pilot’s decision to turn the airplane away from the lighted airport at low altitude, over water, with no visible horizon, in dark night conditions, which resulted in spatial disorientation and a loss of airplane control.
NTSB Identification: ERA16LA106
This February 2016 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.