Night Vision

A pilots first logged night flight in more than 15 years put him too low and too far from the runway.


Theres no question flying after the sun goes down is different. Many of the things we take for granted in the daylight-the scenery, the speed sensation, better terrain avoidance to name but three-simply arent available. The same airports we fly to and from in the daytime look…different. Ramps bathed partly in darkness and partly in yellowish or bluish glows appear cleaner, perhaps, more antiseptic. The runways and taxiways, too, take on a different appearance, hidden between rows of blue and white jewels.

Some of my most memorable flights-for all the right reasons-have been at night: Manhattan, fireworks displays, live-fire exercises in the restricted area I flew past. Too, the airways, frequencies and approaches are not as busy. For this reason, plus competing schedules, most of my Instrument rating was earned at night. All flying is to share the skys beauty; night flying is better.

But, while night flying offers more of many of the things we aviators often seek, it offers much less of some of the things we need to fly safely. Chief among them, of course, is that everything is no longer illuminated by the sun. But with that loss comes another one, even more insidious: lack of depth perception, or the visual ability to perceive our surroundings in three dimensions.

Recognizing this loss, we compensate by requiring specific-color external lights to help spot each other, and help determine an intruding aircrafts distance and direction. Obstacles are illuminated, as are airport beacons. Visual approach path indicators, incredibly useful in daytime, become gotta-haves when terrain or objects surround our destination airport.

Because our depth perception is so drastically affected, flying at night is more challenging than in the day. Its one of the principal reasons the FAA requires us to log three night landings to a full stop within the preceding 90 days before carrying passengers. Throw in some visibility-limiting weather and/or low ceilings, and nighttimes depth-perception loss can quickly turn what was merely a precaution into a full-fledged safety issue. In extreme cases, and especially with inexperienced pilots, it can quickly get worse.


On September 10, 2005, at 2100 Eastern time, a Piper PA-32-300 Cherokee Six flown by a non-Instrument-rated Private pilot, was destroyed during an in-flight collision with the terrain and subsequent explosion/fire while maneuvering to land at the Wabash (Ind.) Municipal Airport (IWH). Night visual conditions prevailed for the personal flight which departed Rochester, Ind., some 20 minutes earlier. The pilot-who likely had around 160 hours total time-and his three passengers were fatally injured.

Radar data obtained from the Fort Wayne Approach Control show the airplane descended from 2100 to 1400 feet msl between 2054:38 and 2057:47 while approaching IWH from the north-northwest. At 2100:37, the last radar return was recorded at 1200 feet msl about 1.0 nm east-northeast of the airport.

Witnesses reported the engine sounded like it was throttled back in a glide before suddenly going to a higher power setting. Sadly, that sound was followed by crash and explosion noises. The Cherokee Six had crashed, its main wreckage coming to rest in a soybean field approximately 1/3 nm south of the Runway 9 threshold.


All major components of the airplane were found at the crash site. The wreckage debris path was about 161 feet long on a 145 degree magnetic heading. A ground impression 42.5 feet from the initial impact point was consistent with the propeller impacting terrain. This evidence seems consistent with the pilot flying the airplane into terrain while in a gentle descent and under control.

The propeller blade surfaces exhibited chordwise scratching and leading edge abrasion. One propeller blade exhibited an S-shape spanwise bend. The other propeller blade was bent aft. This damage tends to indicate the propeller was being driven under some power at the time of impact.

The initial ground scar contained small pieces of red navigational lens material and the left wingtip navigation light cover. The fuselage was destroyed by fire; the only identifiable components were constructed from steel. Investigators found no pre-impact anomalies with either the airframe or the engine.

The closest weather reporting station to the accident site was located about 18 nm southwest of the accident site. Five minutes before the accident, that facilitys observed weather included wind from 130 degrees true at three knots, visibility six sm in haze and a clear sky.

The days sunset occurred two hours before the crash. A partial-41 percent-moon was visible through the haze; the moonset was at 2226.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined the probable cause of this accident to include the “pilots spatial disorientation that resulted in his failure to maintain clearance from terrain. Factors to the accident were the pilots lack of recent night experience and the hazy night conditions.” Thats a fancy way to say the pilot flew the airplane into the ground at night because, in part, he had poor depth perception and even less recent experience.

The NTSBs finding would have us believe the pilot was unable to keep the airplane right side up. While that may be true-radar data indicates some maneuvering in the two or three minutes before impact-equally likely is the pilots inexperience, combined with a lack of depth perception to place the airplane too low and too far from the runway until it was too late.

The hazy conditions simply made everything the pilot was accustomed to in the daytime less-defined, softer and harder to identify. What seemed at the time to be a reasonable altitude and position from the airports well-lit runway placed the airplane well below the desired approach path. Because of his lack of night experience-the pilots logbook indicated his total night flight experience was about 17 hours, and that he had not flown at night in over 15 years-the pilot didnt recognize how low the airplane had gotten until it was too late.

Handled correctly-without waiting more than 15 years before getting three bangs and goes, for example-night flying isnt dangerous or unsafe. But whenever we cut corners and ignore simple, easily complied-with regulations, we and our passengers risk too much.


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