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Pilot Texting Likely Cause For Cessna 185E Plane Crash
By Bill Goldston

August 18, 2012 - A Trek Aerial Surveys Cessna 185E C–FXJN, was on a night flight from Peace River Airport, Alberta, to Fort St. John Airport, British Columbia. At about 6 PM local time the aircraft struck the ground 12 nautical miles east of the Fort St. John Airport.

The pilot, and sole occupant, of the aircraft was killed and the aircraft was destroyed by impact forces. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) investigated the crash and it appears the crash was a result of the pilot texting on his phone.

On November 30, 2011, the pilot departed Fort St. John Airport at 8:43 AM and flew to Peace River Airport, Alberta, arriving at 9:40.

A single passenger was picked up and they departed Peace River Airport at 10:43 for Fort Vermillion, Alberta. The aircraft was refueled in Fort Vermillion and then departed at 2 PM, flying along the Peace River to the Vermillion Chutes before returning to the Peace River Airport to drop off the passenger. 

Prior to arriving at Peace River Airport, the pilot was in contact with the company operations manager via cell phone to update the flight’s progress. The pilot was aware of the need to be back in Fort St. John before night. 

The pilot held a commercial pilot license and was qualified in accordance with the regulations. The pilot had accumulated approximately 2170 hours of flight time with about 182 hours in aircraft. The pilot had completed recurrent training outside of the company to renew a multi–engine instrument rating. It could not be determined how many hours of night flying experience the pilot had, beyond that required for the issuance of the commercial pilot license. 

The pilot had been employed with Trek Aerial Surveys since April 2011. Company training conducted included controlled flight into terrain (CFIT) awareness in the form of the Flight Safety International CFIT awareness video. As the company operates under day VFR, no night flight training was conducted. There were no indications that incapacitation or physiological factors affected the pilot's performance. The occurrence flight was the pilot’s first flight with the company in 30 days. At this time the total flight time accumulated for the day was approximately 7.1 hours. 



The Transportation Safety Board of Canada reported that a loss of situational awareness could be the result of what is known as the “black–hole effect. A black hole approach typically occurs during a visual approach conducted on a moonless or overcast night over water or over dark, featureless terrain where the only visual stimuli are lights on and/or near the airport.  

The absence of visual references in the pilot's near vision affects depth perception and causes the illusion that the airport is closer than it actually is and, thus, that the aircraft is too high. The pilot may respond to this illusion by conducting an approach below the correct flight path (i.e., a low approach). In the extreme, a black–hole approach can result in ground contact short of the runway. 

In June 2012, the TSB released its Watchlist identifying the safety issues investigated by the TSB that pose the greatest risk to Canadians. One of the safety issues identified was controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). CFIT accidents occur when an airworthy aircraft under the control of the pilot is inadvertently flown into the ground, water, or an obstacle.  

In these cases, pilots are unaware of the danger until it is too late. This type of accident often happens when visibility is low, at night, or during poor weather. Such conditions reduce a pilot’s situational awareness of surroundings and make it difficult to tell whether the aircraft is too close to the ground. The risk is even greater for small aircraft, which venture further into remote wilderness or into mountainous terrain but are not required to have the same ground proximity warning equipment as large airliners. 

Between 2000 and 2009, there have been 129 accidents of this type in Canada, resulting in 128 fatalities. Collisions with land and water account for 5% of accidents but nearly 25% of all fatalities. In the events leading up to this accident the aircraft experienced several large altitude deviations while the pilot was using his cell phone. Cell phone use can distract operators from essential operational tasks. There have been no comprehensive studies regarding the use of cell phones as a distraction in an aviation context. The phenomenon has, however, been extensively studied in the automotive sector. The Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators defines driver distraction

Distracted driving is the diversion of attention from driving, as a result of the driver focusing on a non–driving object, activity, event or person. This diversion reduces awareness, decision–making or performance leading to increased risk of driver error, near–crashes or crashes. The diversion of attention is not attributed to a medical condition, alcohol/drug use and/or fatigue. 

There was no indication that an aircraft system malfunction or pilot physiological issue contributed to this occurrence. There were no drastic changes in the aircraft’s flight path and no emergency calls from the pilot to indicate that an in-flight emergency was experienced. The gradual rate of descent, constant ground speed and flight path would also suggest that the aircraft was under the control of the pilot. As a result, the analysis will focus on the phenomenon of controlled flight into terrain. 

The occurrence flight was over sparsely settled terrain at night, where the absence of visual reference or cues would deprive the pilot of context as to the position of the aircraft relative to the ground. This would have created a black–hole effect as the pilot approached the Fort St. John Airport. 

The aircraft had experienced several large altitude deviations while the pilot was using his cell phone. While it did not appear that the pilot was actively engaged in cell phone communications during the last 11 minutes of the flight, this distraction was prevalent throughout the flight and in conjunction with the night conditions encountered, may have contributed to the CFIT event. 

For undetermined reasons, the pilot descended too low or was not aware of the descent and low altitude of the aircraft, which resulted in an impact with terrain. Pilots who engage in non–essential text and voice cell phone communications while conducting flight operations may be distracted from flying the aircraft, placing crew and passengers at risk.
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