See the Light

What to do when flying over foreboding terrain at night.

Night Flying

Night Flying

The cause of the deadly Turbo Commander crash in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains last Wednesday night won’t be known for some time, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to glean some lessons from this tragedy.

As any pilot who has flown in the airspace near Phoenix (or any city surrounded by mountains) knows, seeing the inky blackness of terrain at night is next to impossible. Proper preflight planning, including studying charts and developing a plan of action, is a must. Still, at some point during a night flight over foreboding terrain, you might start to experience some doubt about whether you’ll clear an unseen mountain or ridgeline.

What’s a pilot to do in this case? For one, initiate an immediate climb at best angle of climb, not best rate, while being cautious to maintain situational awareness and control of the airplane. If there are any lights or visible terrain around, use them. Head directly toward distant light. If you can see it, it means there’s nothing between you and it. As you approach it, select another light and head for it. If the light seems to flicker or disappears, it means there is something between you and it. Immediately pick another light to fly toward.

If you’re worried you might not be able to climb quickly enough, perform a shuttle climb (a climbing holding pattern), whereby you make a 180-degree turn (the direction you turn depends on where the highest terrain is located) followed by another 180-degree turn and so on. Continue your shuttle climb to a safe altitude before proceeding on course.

Of course, as in most cases, the best cure is preparation. Doing a careful study of the terrain and planning your flight accordingly before you leave the ground is a given. Many pilots, it goes without saying, file an IFR flight plan and fly the airways (with their published minimum altitudes) for any flight in mountainous terrain at night, a practice we strongly encourage.