Date of accident: March 22 1999

Time of accident: 2100Z

Aircraft registration: ZS-DYT

Type of aircraft: Piper PA28-235

Pilot-in-command licence type: PPL

Pilot-in-command flying experience: Total flying hours: 344.50

Hours on type: 294.00

Last point of departure: Mmabatho (near Mafeking)

Next point of intended landing: Lanseria International Airport (Johannesburg)

Location of the accident site: 25° 52’ 023 South and 026° 23’ 186” East at an elevation of 5450AMSL, 45nm east of Mmabatho.

Meteorological information: Adverse weather conditions – thunderstorm activities east of Mafeking.

Number of people on board: 3

No. of people injured:

No. of people killed: 3

The pilot uplifted 194 liters (51 US Gal) of fuel into the aircraft at Mmabatho International Airport. Shortly after, the pilot and two passengers took off as per Flight Notification from Mmabatho and intended to drop off one passenger at Lanseria Airport before proceeding to Vereeniging Aerodrome.

According to the weather bureau, infrared satellite image indicated a band of cloud with imbedded thunderstorm activities east of Mafeking. A detresfa was declared when the aircraft failed to arrive at destination. The aircraft wreckage was found on March 23 1999 at approximately 0600Z. The aircraft impacted the ground in a slight nose-down attitude. The pilot and two passengers were fatally injured.

Due to the darkness, adverse weather conditions with no moon and possibly flying in cloud, the pilot may have had no visual reference when he impacted the ground in a fairly level attitude at a fairly high speed.

Jim’s analysis
The report doesn’t say otherwise, so we can assume the pilot had a night rating, but as this accident demonstrates this doesn’t necessarily mean you can fly safely on a black night. Do we know the cause of the accident? No and yes.

No, we do not know why he flew into the ground. I suspect he was trying to fly under the weather - the accident site was 1300ft above his departure point. And yes, I do know what caused the crash - the pilot’s decision to take off.  

At 9:30 in the evening the pilot managed to convince himself and both passengers that flying a single engine aeroplane into a line of bad weather, with imbedded thunderstorms,
on a black moonless night, was a safe operation. What a salesman.

Folks, I consider it my duty, as a founding member of the Live Cowards’ Club, to beg you to treat night flying in a single engine aeroplane with great caution.

I believe you should get a night rating so you can leave half an hour before first light, or land half an hour after last light, and maybe do the occasional trip over the city to see the lights. Use it for much more than this and you are treading on thin ice.

In my book, flying on a moonless night over unlit countryside calls for an instrument rating – not a night rating. And a take-off away from the town lights into a black hole is close to suicidal. Apart from your ability to fly on instruments, you must face the possibility of suddenly flying into cloud – because you can’t see it.

And flying in cloud at night is not only dangerous – it’s illegal.

Even if you are a hot shot on instruments, what are you going to do if the engine coughs its last?

Or if your vacuum pump fails – which they do far more often than you might think. But don’t listen to me. Ask a CASA Examiner to come with you on a joy ride in your C152 on a moonless night into a black hole airfield. Notice how they develop a twitch and suddenly remember another appointment.

What can we learn?
• Be a coward about night flying. Only do it when everything is exactly as you want it.

• Don’t go by the regulations – make your own stricter limits.

• If you accidentally fly into cloud, go on to instruments immediately, settle down, note your heading, and then do a gentle turn on to the reciprocal.

• You might get quite good at instrument flying, but you lose those skills very quickly. Here’s what the FAA said about John F Kennedy’s fatal crash: As the airplane bank angle increased, the rate of descent increased and the airspeed started to increase. The bank angle exceeded 45°, the vertical acceleration was 1.2Gs, the airspeed increased through 180knots, and the flightpath angle was close to 5° nose down. After 2140:25, the airplane’s airspeed, vertical acceleration, bank, and dive angle continued to increase, and the right turn tightened until impact.

This was a VFR flight on a cloudless night and Kennedy had 39 hours of recent instrument training!

Jim Davis has 15,000 hours of immensely varied flying experience, including 10,000 hours civil and military flying instruction. He is an established author, his current projects being an instructors’ manual and a collection of Air Accident analyses, called Choose Not To Crash. Visit Jim's website by clicking here.

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