The night crash of an Aero Commander on November 23rd, 2011 was such a tragedy. Six died, including three children, when the aircraft struck the Superstition Mountains East of Mesa, AZ. They had planned to fly from Mesa’s Falcon Field (FFZ) to Safford, AZ (SAD).
Review of the preliminary radar data shows that the takeoff roll began about 1826 MST. The airplane began its right turn towards SAD when it was about two miles east of FFZ and climbing through 2,600 feet msl. At about 1828, the airplane reached an altitude of 4,500 feet msl, where it remained, below the Phoenix Class B airspace, (5,000 to 9,000 feet), and tracked in an essentially straight line until it impacted terrain.
The last radar return was received at 1830:56 at the impact location. The NTSB report indicated that “The impact site was located on steep rocky terrain, at an elevation of about 4,650 feet, approximately 150 feet below the top of the local peak,” said the report.
The 1976 Turbo Commander 690A, N690SM, was equipped with a Bendix/King KGP 560 terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS), according to owner records. Turbine-powered airplanes with six or more passenger seats are required to carry such safety gear, meaning the accident airplane by regulation should have had a functioning TAWS on board.
Night flying requires some Serious Flight Planning
Know where you’re going. Draw a line on a map, and maintain situational awareness throughout your flight. This is not the time to relax or become complacent.
Terrain Warning is relatively cheap, compared to loss of life. Install a GPS with Terrain Warning, such as a Garmin 396, 496 or Aera. Hook it up to your audio system, so in addition to the visual warnings on the GPS, you’ll be able to hear the aural warnings: “Too low terrain . . . Pull up, pull up!”
A webcam located south and east of the mountains, owned by the Fox affiliate in Phoenix, shows the Commander flying straight and level, seemingly unaware of the mountains ahead. You’ll see the Commander disappear for a few seconds as the Superstition Mountains block the webcam’s view – and then the flash from the impact.
Other Ways to Stay Safe at Night
Know about Pilot Controlled Lighting (PCL) – Do you know how to activate it?
While the CTAF is commonly used to activate pilot-controlled lighting, the proper frequency, if different from the CTAF, can be found in the Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) and on standard instrument approach procedure charts. Sample A/FD information: “When twr clsd ACTIVATE HIRL Rwy 10-26 – CTAF”.
There are Two Types of PCL
- Single Intensity, non adjustable PCL, where pilots key the microphone three or five times (as specified), within five seconds.
- HIRL or MIRL PCL, where pilots key the microphone within five seconds either:
- 3 times (HIRL or MIRL – for lowest intensity; Lower REIL or REIL off)
- 5 times (HIRL or MIRL – for medium or lower intensity; Lower REIL or REIL off)
- 7 times (HIRL – for highest intensity and REIL on).
When either type of system is activated, a 15-minute countdown starts, after which the lights turn off unless someone makes the appropriate amount of clicks on the appropriate frequency.
Always initially key the mike 7 times to assure that all controlled lights are turned on to the maximum available intensity. If desired, an intensity adjustment can then be made, (where the capability is provided). REIL can be turned off by keying 5 or 3 times. Even when the lights are on, always key the mike as directed when overflying an airport of intended landing, or just prior to entering the final segment of an approach. This will make sure that the aircraft is close enough to activate the system and a full 15 minutes of lighting duration will be available.
Avoid Bright Lights
AIM 8-1-6 recommends avoiding bright sources of light such as headlights, strobe lights, or flashlights for at least 30 minutes prior to a flight at night. After 30 minutes the rods in our eyes adjust and become 100,000 times more sensitive to the darkness.
Supplemental oxygen can help prevent hypoxia symptoms when flying at or above 5,000 feet MSL at night. (AIM 8-1-2) A lack of oxygen causes visual impairment because the rod cells which give us night vision, require a boat load of oxygen.
Pilots flying in the western US will be hard pressed to fly at or below 5,000 feet MSL.
Stay Night Current
If you’ll be carrying passengers at night in a particular aircraft, you’ll need, within the past 90 days, Night Currency: From one hour after sunset to one hour before sunrise, three takeoffs and three landings to a full stop.
Know the Night Fuel Requirements (FAR 91.151. & 167)
VFR Day: Fuel to destination + 30 minutes.
- VFR Night: Fuel to destination + 45 minutes (similar to that required for an IFR flight – fuel to destination and alternate + 45 minutes).
You’ll need to ensure that your aircraft is equipped for night flight
- Anti-collision light system, if certified after August 11, 1971.
- In the event of failure, you may continue to a location where repairs or replacement can be made.
- Position lights must be ON from sunset to sunrise. (Ref. FAR 91.209).
- Landing light, (if flown for hire).
- A power source.
- Spare fuses; 3 of each kind required, and accessible in flight.
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