Point Of Diversion 5 — In The Dark

Should the title of last week’s accident report (scroll to the end) be, “When you gotta go, ya gotta go.” Or, “Always know where the nearest airport is.” A pilot who needed to make a restroom stop crash-landed instead of landing at an airport 2 miles away. The pilot was not thinking straight — but he was dealing with a big distraction.

The FAA completed this accident investigation and concluded the probable cause of the accident was: The pilot’s poor in-flight decision to attempt a forced landing in a field 2 miles from an airport, leading to an on-ground collision with rough terrain. A factor was the pilot’s physiological need.

Better awareness leading up to this event would have meant a runway and a restroom instead of an accident (no pun intended) in a field. The pilot was otherwise unhurt.

When it gets dark, a pilot’s judgment and awareness must remain bright as day. See if you can determine the places were these two night flights went wrong…

NTSB Report number: BFO93LA028

The pilot tried to activate the radio-controlled runway boundary lights about 10 miles away, and also while in the traffic pattern, but he was unsuccessful. He continued his descent to approximately 500 feet above the ground using the VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator) lights. The pilot stated that he had the airport in sight and “felt well enough in sight to complete landing.”

What happened: The landing resulted in an off-runway accident. But are clues evident in the story that, if registered by the pilot, could have helped him avoid the accident? Why didn’t the pilot see the runway lights even after turning them on by using the radio-controlled method? What if I told you that the lights did come on — but they still could not be seen because they were covered by snow! Let’s pick up the accident report again from here.

“The airplane touched down in approximately 18 inches of snow 60 feet off the right side of the runway.” The pilot reported that there was no mechanical malfunction. He said that as he got closer to the ground he realized it was snowmobile tracks and not the runway that he had seen. He tried to go-around but the airplane impacted the ground collapsing the nose gear.

Probable Cause: The pilot’s inadequate in-flight decision to continue a landing without runway lights, and his delayed initiation of a go-around. A related factor was the pilot’s overconfidence in his ability.

Landing at night without runway lights is dangerous, but the pilot did not think so. He lined up to the side of the VASI lights, but he lined up on the wrong side! The runway was on the left side of the VASI not the right side. The snow was deep enough to cover the runway lights, but not high enough to cover the VASI lights. Here we can see a clear gap between what was real and what the pilot thought was real … a classic POD accident.

NTSB Report number: ATL96LA050

The pilot reported that about 40 miles from his destination, the airplane’s lights blinked on and off due to a short in the system. He elected to land at Goldsboro, North Carolina, already aware of the fact that the runway lights at Goldsboro were inoperative. The airplane landed about 20 feet left of the runway, in grass, and collided with a piece of cultivating equipment. During examination of the wreckage, the landing light was operated several times and it functioned normally.

Probable Cause: The pilot’s improper decision — attempting a night landing at an airport without operating runway lights, which resulted in a touchdown off the runway. Contributing factors were: An airplane lighting malfunction of undetermined origin and the dark night and runway light conditions.

Point Of Diversion: The first point of diversion took place when the pilot overreacted to his in-flight electrical problem. It was dark, but the weather was good VFR. The pilot could have chosen to fly to another airport where the runway lights were on. The pilot’s original destination was only another 20 miles away and had 7500 feet of lighted runway.

You have heard that panic is the pilot’s worst enemy – here is an example to prove it.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The past several articles have been all about learning from the mistakes of others. Of course reading an accident report and identifying what a pilot should have done is easier than identifying diversions while distracted by the duties of your own flight. We must learn to become our own best critics. We know that a lack of awareness could slip into our next flight and place us in jeopardy. Therefore we must prepare to overcome the problem. We must prepare to be aware.

Next week a series on how raise your level of awareness during the five most critical areas of flight.