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TSB: Fatal 2019 accident highlights risk of night flying with inadequate visual references


March 9, 2021
Wings Staff

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The Piper PA-32-260 struck terrain approximately 3.5 nautical miles north of Kingston Airport, killing all seven on board. (Photo: TSB)

Transportation Safety Board of Canada on March 4 published its investigation (A19O0178) into the fatal November 2019 accident involving a Piper PA-32-260 in Kingston, Ontario. The agency explains the accident, which killed all seven people on board, highlights some of the risks of flying at night under visual flight rules (VFR), particularly when weather conditions are poor and over areas with little lighting.

On November 27, 2019, a privately registered U.S. Piper PA-32-260 aircraft was conducting a flight from Toronto/Buttonville Municipal Airport, Ontario, to Québec/Neuville Airport, Quebec, with a pilot and six passengers on board. Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) explains the aircraft departed during daylight hours, but the majority of the flight was to take place during the hours of darkness.

As the weather deteriorated throughout the flight and the aircraft neared the Kingston Airport, Ontario, TSB explains the pilot contacted the Kingston flight service station and stated his intention to land there. Shortly after, the aircraft struck terrain approximately 3.5 nautical miles north of Kingston Airport.

Occurrence aircraft’s flight path during communications with the Kingston flight service station (Source: Google Earth, with TSB annotations, based on data retrieved from the pilot’s global positioning system)

TSB’s investigation found that the pilot departed Toronto/Buttonville Municipal Airport when the weather conditions for the intended flight were below the limits required for a night VFR flight. Given the pilot’s limited flying experience, TSB notes it is likely that he did not recognize the hazards associated with a night VFR flight into poor weather conditions. While approaching the Kingston Airport, TSB notes the pilot likely lost visual reference to the surface, became spatially disoriented, and lost control of the aircraft.

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The flight was planned over some areas that had very little cultural lighting, TSB explains, leading to the pilot having little or no visual reference to the surface during portions of the flight. Cultural lighting is concentrated lighting around areas such as towns and cities. TSB notes that while the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs) require pilots to maintain visual reference to the surface for night VFR flights, they do not clearly define “visual reference to the surface.”

Since 2013, TSB notes it has investigated five other fatal accidents involving private aircraft on night VFR flights, each time highlighting the lack of clarity in the regulations regarding visual references. In 2016, TSB issued a recommendation (A16-08) for Transport Canada to clearly define the visual references required to reduce the risks associated with night VFR flights.

If the CARs do not clearly define what is meant by “visual reference to the surface,” TSB explains night flights may be conducted with inadequate visual references, which increases the risks associated with night VFR flight, including controlled-flight-into-terrain and loss-of-control accidents.