(March 2012) Slipping gradually toward an accident is very common, but it is not the only way accidents happen. At the opposite end of the spectrum lie accidents in which a pilot who has always flown in a safe and professional manner makes one critical mistake. One area in which this type of accident is prevalent is controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). This type of accident can be the result of a pilot gradually getting used to flying lower and lower just for the thrill of it. However, it can also result from one isolated failure to keep track of the terrain, usually during a night flight. This is especially common here in the Southwest, where the general elevation of the terrain can be much higher than anticipated and sharp peaks often poke up out of otherwise level terrain.
There are quite a few examples of experienced pilots colliding with terrain. In November 2007, two Civil Air Patrol pilots with a total of 53,000 hours of flight time and just about every certificate and rating available flew a new Cessna 182T with a Garmin G1000 glass cockpit into an 8,000-foot mountain 1,000 feet below the summit on a clear night. They were likely distracted because one pilot was demonstrating how to work the G1000 to the other pilot and failed to adequately plan the flight, including checking for terrain.
In November 2011, an experienced pilot took off just after dark in a Rockwell 690A and flew into a mountain east of Mesa, Arizona, minutes later, killing the three adults and three children on board. The high-performance airplane was reported to be a recent purchase by the copilot, and the FAA had recently altered the Class B airspace east of Mesa, reducing the clearance above the mountains for pilots departing to the east without getting a clearance through Class B airspace from ATC.
Another common accident involves a very experienced professional pilot attempting to scud-run rather than filing an instrument flight plan.
An ATP-rated pilot with 33,000 hours and seven type ratings in transport category airplanes hit a hilltop at an elevation of 2,500 feet. The pilot had left the Commander 680 at Palm Springs the day before due to bad weather at his planned destination in Chino, California. The next day he returned to Palm Springs to fly the airplane the 63 nm back to Chino. The weather was VFR at Palm Springs, but his route through the Banning Pass was obscured by dark clouds. The pilot had almost made it through the pass flying at altitudes as low as 700 agl when he turned southwest to avoid an area of moderate to heavy rain. He had just requested an IFR clearance when he impacted a small peak that rises 1,000 feet above the valley floor.