“Night flying requires that pilots be aware of, and operate within, their abilities and limitations,” says the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in a recent report. “Although careful planning of any flight is essential, night flying demands more attention to the details of preflight preparation and planning. Night flying is very different than day flying and demands more attention of the pilot.”

Night flying over water can cause spatial disorientation, making it difficult to distinguish the sky from the water. This seems to have been a factor in a fatal small plane crash off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland in 2018. The NTSB’s report on its investigation of the crash has just been released.

The crash occurred on Feb. 28, 2018. A Cessna 172S took off from Martin State Airport in Baltimore County at around 5:50 p.m. en route to Ocean City Municipal Airport. It was piloted by a 28-year-old man from Windsor Mill, Maryland, and carrying a 28-year-old Gwynn Oak, Maryland, woman as a passenger.

At about 6:05 p.m., the pilot reported reaching a cruising altitude of 3,500 feet. Sunset had been at 5:52 p.m., and twilight ended at around 6:30 p.m. The pilot cancelled flight-following upon approach to Ocean City and the airport heard no further from the pilot.

The plane crashed into the ocean just off the coast near Ocean City at 7:50 p.m. However, the plane was apparently not reported missing until the next day. At that point, a search effort was initiated. Later that day, searchers found an oil slick about two miles off the coast. Ultimately, the fuselage and a wing were discovered on the ocean floor below the slick. The pilot’s body was also recovered. The passenger’s remains were never found.

Spatial disorientation makes depth perception difficult

The NTSB says that weather conditions were partly cloudy that night, nearly obscuring the full moon. This created visual issues for the pilot. During poor visibility, the distinction between the horizon and the sky becomes difficult to gauge. Therefore, instruments should always be used when small planes attempt night flights, especially over the water.

Pilot error is often the cause of plane crashes, even in tragic cases like this one, where the pilot dies. However, other causes can also occur, even in the same flight. If your loved one has been involved in a plane crash, you should have the event reviewed by an experienced aviation attorney to get the answers you need.