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Aviation Accident

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NTSB Identification: WPR14FA078
14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
Accident occurred Thursday, December 26, 2013 in Fresno, CA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 12/09/2015
Aircraft: CESSNA 172K, registration: N251JM
Injuries: 2 Fatal.

NTSB investigators either traveled in support of this investigation or conducted a significant amount of investigative work without any travel, and used data obtained from various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.

The non-instrument rated pilot was on a cross-country flight in dark night, hazy, visual flight rules conditions. As the pilot approached his intended destination airport, witnesses observed the pilot attempt to land the airplane three times. During the third attempt to land, the airplane struck a 62-ft-tall tree with the left wingtip; the tree was located about 1,400 ft from the approach end of the runway. The airplane then continued to fly over the runway and entered a left turn. Subsequently, the airplane descended rapidly into the ground. Wreckage and impact signatures were consistent with a near-vertical impact with the ground. Examination of the wreckage revealed no evidence of any preimpact mechanical malfunctions or failures. Review of the pilot’s Federal Aviation Administration medical records revealed that the pilot had not reported any medical conditions. However, according to the pilot’s personal medical records, the pilot had elevated cholesterol, gout, high blood pressure, and chronic depression that was in remission; all were adequately controlled and the medications being used were unlikely to impair the pilot’s performance.

Although the pilot’s corrected visual acuity remained 20/20 bilaterally, he had complained to his optometrist of vision problems with halos around stars. Annual exams documented progression of bilateral cataracts and vitreous opacities in the 4 years before the accident. Cataracts can cause halos around points of light (glare) and degrade night vision. A witness, who was based at the pilot’s home airport, reported that the pilot recently had problems taxiing on a familiar lighted runway and taxiway at night. The witness reported that he had to drive his truck onto the taxiway and use the truck’s headlights to allow the pilot to find his way off the runway. Based on the pilot’s 4-year history of progressive bilateral cataracts, complaints of halos around stars at night, prior difficulty operating the airplane at night on his lighted home airport runway, and his unsuccessful attempts to land on this unfamiliar runway at night, it is likely that cataracts degraded his ability to see clearly at night and resulted in his inability to safely operate the airplane during the accident sequence.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
  • The pilot’s failure to maintain adequate clearance from trees while on approach, which subsequently led to a loss of airplane control. Also causal was the pilot’s continued operation of the airplane at night with a diagnosed medical condition that degraded his night vision.