FLYING Magazine

In February 2012, two pilots returning from a vacation trip to Bimini in the Bahamas found themselves obliged to divert to Key West because of a presidential temporary flight restriction (TFR) at Miami. The 172 they had rented was not due back at Miami Executive Airport (KTMB) until the next day, but the TFR was scheduled to end early that evening, and they decided they would clear customs and get dinner in Key West and make the 92 nm trip back to Miami afterward.

Both pilots were in their early 30s and were Polish nationals. Both held FAA private pilot certificates based on their Polish certificates. They were relative novices, with 210 hours total time between them, only 130 as pilot in command (PIC). Neither was instrument rated, and only one was legally qualified for night VFR flying. (Their FAA certificates required them to comply with the limitations imposed by their Polish ones.)


After having dinner in town, they returned to Key West International Airport (KEYW) around 8 o’clock. It was dark, the sun having set an hour and a half earlier. The moon, new two days before, was now a smiling sliver on the western horizon. By the time they boarded the airplane, it too had set.

Presumably because he was the one who had done the rental checkout, the less experienced pilot of the two, with 30 hours of PIC time, took the left seat, and his companion took the right. It was the pilot in the right seat, however, who held the night qualification.

READ MORE: Fatal Cirrus Accident Shows That Some Knowledge Doesn’t Translate

They began their takeoff roll at 8:33 p.m. When they were airborne, the tower instructed them to make a left turn northbound, remain clear of Navy Class D airspace, and contact Navy tower for transition. “Navy” meant Naval Air Station Boca Chica (KNQX), whose airspace abuts that of KEYW.

The tower frequency for KNQX is 118.75, but the pilot read back only 118.7, followed by a pause and then the last three digits of the Cessna’s call sign, “five eight niner.” The “five” was ambiguous, but it is possible that the pilot handling the radios missed the final “five” in the Navy tower frequency. In any case, that acknowledgement was the last communication heard from the Cessna.

In the early afternoon of the following day, some pleasure boaters noticed an object floating in the water. They thought it might be a manatee and approached it cautiously, only to find that it was a human body. The water was shallow, just 7 feet deep, and perfectly clear. Parts of an airplane could be seen resting on the bottom. The site was less than 3 miles from the Key West runway. 

Accident investigators found that an airport surveillance camera had recorded the airplane’s lights as it departed. Its flight path was erratic, descending, leveling off, descending again, leveling off, and then disappearing from view.

A witness, who had been fishing from a nearby bridge and read about the accident in the newspaper the following day, reported having seen what he thought at the time was a firework but now realized might have been a red light on the airplane descending rapidly toward the water.

READ MORE: Only Assumptions Can Be Made About What Took Down a Curtiss C-46 in Alaska

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) attributed the accident to “the non-night-qualified pilot’s improper decision to depart in dark night meteorological conditions, which resulted in his subsequent spatial disorientation…”

A direct line from Key West to Miami bears about 055 degrees, and about half the trip is over open water. On a dark night, the danger of disorientation is great. The brightly lighted line of the Keys recedes on the right, while the dark Everglades lie ahead. Miami is a pale glow beyond the northeastern horizon. The two pilots having just returned from the Bahamas, flying over open ocean in a single-engine airplane evidently held no terrors. (They had, nevertheless, taken the precaution of wearing life jackets.)

Most likely, however, they had no idea that the main danger of a night flight over open water was not that they might have to ditch after an engine failure, it was that they would lose the horizon and fly into the water before they even realized that something was wrong.

The fact that one of them was legally qualified for night flying meant only that he had logged a certain number of hours and takeoffs and landings at night with an instructor, not that he had any experience flying at night in this particular kind of environment. In any case, the pilot with the night qualification was sitting in the right seat, and to the extent that he might have made better use of the attitude indicator, he was not in a position to do so.

This is not an unusual kind of accident. I have written in this column about many similar ones, including two Barons and a Citation that flew under control into Lake Erie immediately after taking off from Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport (KBKL); a Lancair 550 and a Cessna 210 that crashed immediately after taking off on moonless nights in desert terrain; and a Piper Cherokee, on another island of the Florida Keys, that went into the water a couple of miles from the runway from which it had just taken off.

Note the recurrence of the phrase “taking off.” The airplanes that took off over a pitch-dark lake or desert invariably climbed only a few hundred feet before they began to bank, then the bank grew progressively steeper, and the climb became a dive. The pilots were unaware that anything was wrong. Once the lights disappear, the rest lasts a matter of seconds, or at most 2 or 3 miles.

The two Polish pilots did fine at first, while they were over the lights of Key West. It was only when they left the lights behind that the insidious effects of darkness beset them. Neither pilot had instrument flying experience beyond the hood work required for the private certificate, which bears more resemblance to an arcade game than the real sensations, physical and emotional, of piloting an airplane in total darkness.

In pilots’ careers certain dangers are bound to arise for which it is very difficult for an instructor to prepare them. Many of those dangers are associated with loss of a visible horizon, whether because of fog, clouds, or darkness.

Warnings to believe the instruments, not bodily sensations, may be memorized, emphasized, and faithfully repeated, but they are never so persuasive as the sensations themselves. One must work hard to develop the discipline to level the tilting wings of the attitude indicator despite an overwhelming impression that the instrument has failed and the airplane is still in level flight.

Unfortunately, not every airport has an ocean or large lake handy with which to impress upon the student pilot the perils of total darkness—and Warsaw is far from the Baltic Sea.

Note: This article is based on the National Transportation Safety Board’s report of the accident and is intended to bring the issues raised to our readers’ attention. It is not intended to judge or reach any definitive conclusions about the ability or capacity of any person, living or dead, or any aircraft or accessory.

This column first appeared in the March 2024/Issue 946 of FLYING’s print edition.

The post Three-Mile Limit: Novice Pilots Succumb to the Perils of Total Darkness appeared first on FLYING Magazine.

Read More