When Night VFR
Isn’t Visual Flying
BY J. MAC MCCLELLAN A
TO ANY PILOT OR WEATHER BRIEFER it would have seemed like a perfect evening to practice touch-and-goes at the Tallahassee, Florida,
airport in early November. The METAR for the airport was calm
winds, 10 miles’ visibility, and clear skies. But it was dark.
It was only 7: 15 in the evening when the pilot and his instructor
called for taxi in their rented Cessna 172 Skyhawk, but the sun was
long gone over the horizon, and the moon had just begun to rise in
the northeast. The moon that night would be nearly full with 94 percent illumination, but at the time the Skyhawk taxied the moon was
just 0.9 degrees above the horizon.
Tallahassee is a towered airport with two runways, 18/36 and
9/27. The NTSB does not report that the pilot requested a specific
runway for traffic pattern practice work, and any runway could
have been used given the calm winds, but for whatever reason
the flight was assigned Runway 36. The pilot and CFI were cleared
to fly left patterns.
The NTSB did not determine the exact purpose of the flight. The
pilot held a private certificate and 16 months before the accident
reported a total flight experience of 600 hours on his application for
a second-class medical. The pilot also had an instrument rating. His
logbook could not be found, but rental records showed he had flown
the Skyhawk 48. 2 hours since his application for the medical.
So what did in this pair of reasonably
experienced pilots on a perfectly clear night?
The CFI’s logbook was recovered and showed a total of 1,202
hours of flight experience, nearly all of it in Cessna 152, 172, and 182
airplanes. The instructor had logged 20 hours in the previous 30
days and had 133 hours of total night flying experience.
The airport is located about four miles southwest of downtown
Tallahassee. Immediately west and south of the airport is the
Apalachicola National Forest, which contains hundreds of square
miles of densely wooded, unlighted terrain, with little or no ambient
light from vehicles or structures.
The tower controller told the NTSB that he monitored
the airplane’s progress as it took off, climbed to about 600
feet, and then made a left turn onto the crosswind leg
climbing to 1,000 feet above the nearly sea level airport.
As the tower controller watched the Cessna’s lights
he noticed that the nav lights and landing lights were
changing relative position indicating a turning descent.
The controller transmitted the airplane’s N number as
the briefest form of a question or warning. One of the
pilots in the Skyhawk responded by restating the N
number in what the NTSB called a “business-like” tone.
There were no further transmissions.
The Cessna continued its descending turn back toward
the airport and flew into the trees. The wreckage path was
consistent with a shallow, wings-level, high-speed descent
to ground contact. The Board believed the wreckage path
indicated that one or both pilots may have nearly recovered the airplane and avoided the accident during the last
several seconds. Both pilots were killed on impact.
The NTSB assembled a track of the Skyhawk’s transponder returns and determined the airplane was at
1,000 feet as it began the turn from crosswind to downwind leg. But the radar records show the airplane never
established course on downwind but continued to arc
left back toward the airport. In the span of 10 seconds
the final three radar returns show altitudes of 1,000, 800,
and 400 feet respectively.
At its farthest point from the airport the Cessna was
three-quarters of a mile from the airport fence, and 0.92
miles from the departure runway. The Board concluded
that in calm winds the Skyhawk could have glided 1. 75
miles from the 1,000-foot altitude it reached, so loss of
power would not have prevented the airplane from at
least reaching the airport surface. And there were no
indications in the wreckage of pre-impact malfunctions
of the engine or airframe.