Aviation Accident Anaysis – CFIT on Final Approach at Night

On October 16, 2011, a Cirrus aircraft impacted terrain while on approach to Danbury Municipal airport in Danbury, Connecticut, fatally injuring the pilot. The pilot flew into an approximately 100 foot lighted obstruction tower on final approach to landing. The conditions were VFR at the time of the accident. The FAA, in its accident analysis, provided the following additional information in its report:
“ADDITIONAL Accident Or Negligence INFORMATION
According to a representative of the airplane manufacturer, the accident airplane’s avionics system was equipped with a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) B and synthetic vision system (SVS) software option, which were enabled. The version of software installed on the accident airplane did not record TAWS B or SVS warnings. The obstacle database used by both Personal Injury Lawsuit Calculator TAWS B and SVS did not include towers less than 200 feet above ground level. The TAWS B would have, by design, provided a routine aural alert when the airplane descended below 500 feet in an airport environment. Additionally, the terrain database used by SVS was of sufficient resolution to depict the hill at the base of the tower on the primary flight display.
Updated on May 21 2012 2:14PM”
The inclusion of this additional information in the report is interesting. While it is impossible to know why the pilot flew an approach at such a low angle, there are a few things we can all take from this accident.
First, anyone that flies aircraft with terrain warnings should NOT rely on them for primary information regarding terrain avoidance. In fact, this report states that even though the obstacle database did contain an aural alert below 500 feet and could sufficiently depict the terrain, it did not include towers lower than 200 feet AGL. The point is, the information provided in these systems should only supplement proper pre-flight planning. We all learn in flight training how to read and interpret aviation sectional charts. A review of the approach end of the chart would have given the pilot the information he needed to avoid the tower, given a properly functioning altimeter and a proper altimeter setting.
Additionally, the report stated that witnesses in the area reported that the light on the tower was working. The report also stated that the purpose of the tower was to warn of rising terrain in the final approach path to the airport. So why did this pilot fly into a lighted tower that was just 100 feet AGL? While we will never know the exact decision making process that made the pilot fly so low, we can posit some theories. First, it is easy to get distracted by the abundance of information presented in technologically advanced aircraft. Is it possible that he was looking at his screens trying to interpret the information instead of look out the cockpit? It is entirely possible and even likely given all the information. Night landings can be tricky. There are less visual cues available and our vision isn’t as sharp as it is in daytime flying. For these reasons, many instructors teach students to fly a higher than normal approach at night. Another likely scenario in similar situations is complacency. Pilots get comfortable, maybe even a little overconfident in their equipment and abilities, and they lose focus. Landing is never a time to lose our focus, especially at night.
How can we learn from this accident? We can’t simple say we would never do that. This particular pilot went through the same scrutiny and testing as every other pilot, yet it still happened. Pilots can prevent this type of accident from happening by being vigilant to always do the proper pre-flight planning at airports of intended landing, especially at night. It is also important to keep our eyes outside of the cockpit. While it is debatable on whether it is a good idea to fly a higher approach path at night, it certainly would have helped prevent this particular tragedy from happening. We would love to hear what you think.

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