Two night landings that went awry

Night landings, takeoffs and approaches can be a tricky business even for experienced pilots as two summaries of recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident reports from General Aviation news reveal. The first accident report from September 2009 covered an incident that resulted in one minor injury and a heavily damaged Cessna 172 in Minnesota.

According to the accident report, the pilot was attempting to land at night in VFR conditions and he performed a go-around on the first attempt. For the second attempt, he landed mid-field and performed a touch-and-go landing with 10° of flaps on takeoff which he retracted when he reached about 100 feet above ground level. However:

He felt that the airspeed was a little low so he pushed the nose over. He stated that he did not think he was in a descent, but the airplane hit the ground about 100 feet from the end of the runway.

The impact caused the nose gear to collapse and both wings were also damaged. An investigation of the accident site revealed eight ground scars in the grass that were consistent with propeller strikes while the pilot himself had about 112 hours of flight time with 9 hours at night (including two hours of night experience when he was pilot-in-command). Hence, the pilot’s failure to maintain a proper climb rate during a night takeoff was ruled the cause of the accident.

The second NTSB accident report also dated September 2009 involved a Cessna 210 in Texas where there was one fatality. The pilot had 1,276 total hours which included 475 hours in the same make and model airplane plus he had landed five times at the airport where the accident occurred.

However and this time around, he was attempting to land in dark night conditions with visibility at 3 to 5 miles in drizzle or light rain with overcast clouds. Moreover, the airport was a private rural airport whose lighting system was inoperable due to a recent lightening strike. Hence, a local resident radioed the pilot to inform him of this while another resident attempted to illuminate the runway with the headlights from a car.

According to witnesses, the pilot was not aligned with the runway and also appeared to be too high to land. The pilot radioed at 50 to 150 feet that he would perform a go-around but instead the aircraft began a descent, hit trees on the edge of the runway and then crashed into an empty house. 

The investigation ruled that night and poor weather conditions meant that spatial disorientation was the probable cause of the accident as the FAA’s “Instrument Flying Handbook” (FAA-H-8083-15A) states that:

A rapid acceleration…can create the illusion of being in a nose up attitude. The disoriented pilot will push the aircraft into a nose low, or dive attitude.

In other words and if you plan to do any night flying, it would be a good idea to keep these incidents in mind.

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3 Responses to Two night landings that went awry

  1. S. Riggle December 14, 2011 at 03:39 #

    The lead in to the article talks to how tricky night landings can be even for experienced pilots. First of all, the pilot of the 172 was not experienced. He had 112 hours total time, but only 9 at night. While his total time is not great, his night time makes him an inexperienced pilot in that situation. His poor judgement, in more than one act in the sequence of events, shows his lack of knowledge and experience. Landing at mid-field was his first problem….if you can't get it down in the first third, go around particularly at night. His second showing of poor skills was retracting his flaps while at just 50 or 100 feet above ground on the take-off of the touch and go. You don't retract them before establishing a positive rate of climb, which you surely aren't getting securely that soon in the take-off.

  2. S. Riggle December 14, 2011 at 04:05 #

    Continuation of previous comments….The second pilot, wquiteho appears to be quite experienced, did nothing more than show blatant stupidity by trying to land in poor weather conditions, and worst of all, on an unlit runway at night. Landing on a runway with no lighting other than your landing light is tricky, but in poor weather, it is just asking for trouble. He was also apparently lulled into thinking he could do it since he had landed there before (although we do not know if he ever tried it at night). In summary, the accident examples do not show the point noted in the beginning, they only relate lack of experience and very bad judgement. Night landings are different than daytime ones and do require more practice. If you plan to do a lot of night flying and you don’t have a lot of experience, find a flight instructor and get some good dual with them. If you are experienced, put your knowledge and experience to work and plan to use good judgement.

    beginning about the trickiness of night landings, they only relate to lack of experience and bad judgement.

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