Dark Departure (Night Flying)

Night flying is tricky enough when were current. Dont mix in little recent experience and complacency.


These pages often explore the differences between flying during the day and at night. Weve also been repeat offenders when it comes to emphasizing recent experience with a proposed operation and cautioning about allowing a four- or five-digit number of flight hours cloud our judgment. Despite our wishes to the contrary, its all too frequent when a single event highlights all three of these accident-causing factors.

At night, of course, the eye can play various tricks on us. These include false depth perception and autokinesis, where a stationary light appears to move. But even more universal and insidious is our frequent inability to discern the natural horizon at night. Put another way, when flying over remote, unlighted areas, the lack of a natural horizon can make VFR flight problematic at best, and hazardous at worst.

The considerations of night VFR operations are well-known, but that knowledge can fall into disuse and be suppressed if we havent flown much recently. We all know in the back of our mind what the differences are when compared with daytime flying, but the lack of recent experience with them can mean we forget what they are. This is especially true if we have no recent refresher training.

Finally, of course, the number of hours or years of experience a pilot may have doesnt mean he or she is immune to an accident. Yes, they perhaps arent as likely to prang something in a hard landing or a crosswind, but high-time pilots do find inventive ways to get themselves into trouble. The root cause of an experienced pilots accident often can be laid at the altar of complacency, or failure to think through a proposed operation, even if theyve done it many times before.


On March 24, 2008, at about 2040 Eastern time, a rented Piper PA-28-161 was substantially damaged when it impacted water shortly after takeoff from the Venice (Fla.) Municipal Airport (VNC). The solo commercial pilot was fatally injured. Night visual conditions prevailed. According to the FBO at VNC, the pilot had recently completed a “checkout” flight with a CFI, allowed him to rent the FBOs airplanes. The accident flight was the pilots first solo flight in an FBO airplane.

The airplane departed Runway 31, and was on a left downwind leg for a landing on the same runway when it descended and impacted the Gulf of Mexico, approximately -mile west of the shore. The airport is located next to the Gulf of Mexico and routine pattern operations for the facilitys two runways extend over the water.

The pilot, age 64, held a commercial certificate, with ratings for airplane single-engine land, airplane multiengine land, instrument airplane and glider aero-tow. He also held a flight instructor certificate, with ratings for airplane single engine and instrument airplane. Some six months earlier, he reported a total flight experience of 4000 hours on an FAA medical certificate application.


The pilots most recent logbook was the only one recovered. It contained one entry: a one-hour flight on January 15, 2008. The flight was a combination flight review and rental checkout, which was conducted at night. The instructor believed the pilot may have flown one additional time in March 2008, but there were no other logbook entries. Weather recorded around the time of the accident at the nearest observing station some 20 miles away included wind from 340 degrees at nine knots, visibility 10 miles and a clear sky.

The wreckage was recovered and examined. All major portions of the airframe were recovered except for portions of the right flap and aileron, and the entire left aileron. The left wing sustained less leading-edge damage than the right one. The cockpit and cabin area were crushed, the empennage remained attached to the fuselage, and had sustained less damage than the cockpit and cabin.

Continuity from the cockpit was confirmed for all primary flight controls. Stabilator trim control continuity also was confirmed; 15 threads were measured on the stabilator trim jackscrew. Sixteen threads equates to full nose-up trim; neutral trim is five threads. No pre-impact damage precluding normal engine operation was discovered.

According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, sunset occurred 57 minutes prior to the accident. Moonrise did not occur until 2 hours 25 minutes after the accident.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident to include “The pilots in-flight loss of control for undetermined reasons.” Which basically means even the NTSB couldnt figure out why an experienced, relatively high-time pilot and flight instructor flying a well-maintained airplane would smack into the water shortly after taking off with the airport and numerous ground lights just off his left wing. We wont solve the mystery here, either.

What we will do, however, is reiterate some of the points we made earlier. And add another: While night flying is perfectly safe and even enjoyable, its perhaps not the first choice for a pilot who appeared to be a bit rusty and-at least based on the NTSB report-we speculate may have been trying to get back into flying after an absence.

The only head-scratching finding in the NTSBs report involves the stabilator trim position. Were not sufficiently familiar with the PA-28s trim system to suggest it was repositioned by impact forces. Similarly, we dont know where the takeoff setting would be. From our own experience with various PA-28 models, however, we know its not nearly full in the nose-up direction.

Even so, its very unusual for a pilot to forego resetting pitch trim upon establishing straight and level flight in the traffic pattern. With almost full nose-up trim, a substantial push on the yoke would have been required to maintain level flight. We can see a scenario involving difficulty finding the Pipers manual trim wheel in the dark, but for a pilot of this experience level, thats a stretch.

Finally, the greater damage noted to the right wing is a subtle clue the airplane may have stalled and spun, but theres no real evidence supporting such a theory.

Theres never a good reason for an experienced pilot to fly an intact and functioning airplane into terrain. But wed bet if one of the three factors highlighted earlier-night VFR, little recent experience and high-time complacency-were eliminated, we wouldnt be writing about it.


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