What happened

On 15 August 2011, the pilot of a Piper PA‑28‑180 Cherokee aircraft, registered VH-POJ, was conducting a private flight transporting two passengers from Essendon to Nhill, Victoria under the visual flight rules (VFR). The flight was arranged by the charity Angel Flight to return the passengers to their home location after medical treatment in Melbourne. Global Positioning System data recovered from the aircraft indicated that when about 52 km from Nhill, the aircraft conducted a series of manoeuvres followed by a descending right turn. The aircraft subsequently impacted the ground at 1820 Eastern Standard Time, fatally injuring the pilot and one of the passengers. The second passenger later died in hospital as a result of complications from injuries sustained in the accident.

What the ATSB found

The ATSB found that the pilot landed at Bendigo and accessed a weather forecast before continuing towards Nhill. After recommencing the flight, the pilot probably encountered reduced visibility conditions approaching Nhill due to low cloud, rain and diminishing daylight, leading to disorientation, loss of control and impact with terrain. One of the passengers was probably not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident.

The ATSB also established that flights are permitted under the visual flight rules at night (night VFR) in conditions where there are no external visual cues for pilots. In addition, pilots conducting such operations are not required to maintain or periodically demonstrate their ability to maintain aircraft control with reference solely to flight instruments.

What's been done as a result

As a result of previous ATSB investigations the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has drafted new legislation, effective 4 December 2013, requiring a biennial review for night VFR‑rated pilots. In addition, CASA has indicated that it will clarify the nature of what is meant by the term ‘visibility’ in dark night conditions, provide enhanced guidance on night VFR flight planning, and provide enhanced guidance on other aspects of night VFR operations. The ATSB issued a safety recommendation as a result of investigation AO-2011-102 for CASA to prioritise this initiative.

The ATSB is also producing an educational booklet in its Avoidable Accident Series related to visual flight at night. When released, this safety education booklet will highlight a number of the risks associated with night VFR flight and discuss strategies for their management.

Safety message

All operators and pilots considering night VFR flights should assess the likelihood of dark night conditions by reviewing the weather conditions, celestial illumination and available terrain lighting affecting their planned flight. A VFR flight in dark night conditions should only be conducted by a pilot with high instrument flying proficiency as there is a significant risk of losing control if attempting to fly visually in such conditions. Application by pilots of the recommendations in CASA advisory publication CAAP 5.13-2(0) will reduce the risks associated with visual flight at night.

Additionally, wearing seatbelts will reduce the likelihood and severity of injuries in an aircraft accident.