Midnight Special

A fresh private pilot launches a Skyhawk into nighttime IFR, with predictable results.


The private pilot certificate is often referred to as a license to learn. In many ways, it is: Suddenly, that piece of plastic allows you to go pretty much where you want, when you want. Ideally, the private is a rung in the ladder of experience, leading to other ratings and certificates. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with remaining a VFR-only private pilot, as long as one recognizes and stays within its obvious limitations.

On another hand, the private certificate also is an invitation to mischief. All of a sudden, the former student pilot is freed from the need to study, practice specific maneuvers, check in with a flight instructor before launching or submit to myriad other limitations. That freedom, of course, comes with responsibilities.

One of the challenges faced by many fresh private pilots is they don’t know what they don’t know. Their limited flying experience has been focused and regimented on a specific goal. After the checkride, that structure no longer exists and, unless the pilot is moving on immediately to additional training, he or she must find a way to self-impose some limitations. Some call it exercising judgment.

Of course, judgment basically comes from experience, something the fresh private pilot has in short supply. Hopefully, the training environment not only helps the student understand what he or she doesn’t know, but also instills a healthy fear of the unknown and what kinds of things can happen when we try going beyond our training. For example, our training rarely includes real-world experience with low-level, high-speed maneuvering, attempting to stretch fuel supplies or other operations routinely listed as accident causes.

Perhaps the most sinister thing fresh private pilots don’t know is what can happen when succumbing to the temptation of launching into poor weather for a short flight. Add in self-imposed pressure and/or promises made to passengers, a dark night and minimal training, and things start to pile up. It’s the same kind of situation that killed John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife and sister-in-law. As we’re about to see, things can go very wrong very quickly, and—despite the JFK, Jr. accident’s public visibility—fear of the consequences isn’t universal.

On December 7, 2009, at 2223 Eastern time, a Cessna 172S was destroyed upon impacting the water of Lake Russell near Kissimmee, Fla. The non-instrument-rated private pilot and three passengers were fatally injured. Instrument conditions prevailed. The flight departed the Florida Gateway Airport (ISM), Kissimmee, Fla., with the Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) Executive Airport (FXE) as its destination.

About 2206, the pilot requested a special VFR clearance from ISM to FXE. About 2208, ATC issued the clearance, instructed the pilot to maintain VFR at or below 1500 feet and provided him with a release time of 2208, plus a clearance void time of 2215. The aircraft departed ISM about 2213. About 2222, ATC issued an on-course clearance, which was acknowledged by the pilot. This was the last transmission received from the flight.

Radar tracking data indicate the airplane made a slight left turn for an on-course heading to FXE, then made a right turn of approximately 100 degrees away from the desired track. At 2223, radar data showed the airplane at 2400 feet msl. Approximately 12 seconds after the final 2400-foot radar return, another radar return showed the airplane’s altitude at 0 feet.

The wreckage was located in approximately six feet of water about 500 feet from the lake shore and was confined to an area approximately 60 feet by 60 feet. Recovery divers estimated the engine was embedded approximately four feet into the lake bed. The wreckage was consistent with the airplane being in a nose-down attitude at impact.

The rudder, left horizontal stabilizer, elevator and right horizontal stabilizer counterweight were recovered. The right horizontal stabilizer was not recovered. The left horizontal stabilizer’s leading edge damage was consistent with being struck by the left main landing gear.

One flight control cable was cut during the recovery process; all other flight control cables exhibited fracture separations consistent with tensile overload. Cable continuity was established to all flight control surfaces. Both vacuum pumps were disassembled and both exhibited fractures consistent with rotation at the time of impact.

Several flight instruments were recovered; the attitude indicator was disassembled and exhibited rotational scoring on the inside of the gyro case. The airspeed indicator had numerous impact marks on its face between 140 and 155 knots; however, the rest of the case had been fractured. The electric turn coordinator gyro exhibited rotational scoring.

The pilot held a private certificate he earned less than two months earlier. He had 150.7 total hours of flight experience and 4.9 total hours of simulated instrument flight time. No record of logged actual instrument flight time was found.

Weather observed at ISM, 10 miles north of the accident site, at 2153 included winds from 060 degrees at eight knots, a broken cloud layer at 800 feet agl, an overcast cloud layer at 2700 feet agl, temperature 21 degrees C, dew point 19 degrees C, and an altimeter setting of 30.13 inches of mercury. Sunset was at 1730. Moonrise was not until 2329.

Probable Cause
The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to include: “The pilot’s decision to depart under special VFR flight at night when instrument meteorological conditions prevailed at the departure airport and along the route of flight and his continued VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in his spatial disorientation and subsequent loss of aircraft control.”

This accident is a classic example of the genre, featuring all the basic elements: a dark night, passengers, featureless terrain with minimal lights, water and a relatively inexperienced pilot. Overconfidence may have played a role here, too, although the associated record is incomplete.

The pilot was familiar with the airplane, the departure airport and his destination. Only 140 or so miles separate the two airports, which otherwise would have meant a pleasant 90-minute night flight over South Florida. Although we’ll never know the pilot’s thought process, we know the conditions and the outcome. Sadly, we keep repeating the latter.




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