Spatial Disorientation Found As Cause of 2018 Fatal Plane Crash

Spatial Disorientation Found As Cause of 2018 Fatal Plane Crash
The Ocean City Municipal Airport is pictured in a file photo. Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — A little over two years after a fatal plane crash in the water just off the coast of the Ocean City Airport claimed the life of the pilot and presumably the female passenger, a report released this week suggests spatial disorientation, a phenomenon associated with night flying, was likely the cause.

On Feb. 28, 2018, a Cessna 172S airplane piloted by Marcson Ngwa, 28, of Windsor Mill, Md. accompanied by Benica Richards-Robinson, 28, of Gwynn Oak, Md., went down in the Atlantic Ocean about a mile from the Ocean City Municipal Airport. The following morning, when the rented airplane had not returned to Martin State Airport in Baltimore County where the ill-fated flight originated, a massive search effort was initiated.

On March 1, an oil slick was located about two miles off the coast of the Ocean City Municipal Airport and search efforts were focused there. Late that same day, the plane’s fuselage and a wing were located on the ocean floor below the oil slick and Ngwa’s deceased body was recovered. The search continued off and on over the next two weeks, hampered by back-to-back coastal storms at times. About two weeks later, Maryland State Police investigators announced search and recovery efforts had ended. Richards-Robinson was never recovered and is presumed deceased.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) this week issued a factual report stating the cause of the crash was likely a phenomenon known as spacial disorientation linked to night flying. The ill-fated flight left Martin State Airport in Baltimore County around 5:50 p.m. bound for the Ocean City Municipal Airport.

Around 6:05 p.m., the pilot reported reaching his cruising altitude of 3,500 feet and the plane went down in the ocean just off the coast of the Ocean City Municipal Airport around 7:50 p.m. According to the NTSB report, sunset was at 5:52 p.m. on the evening of the crash with the end of twilight at around 6:20 p.m., or roughly an hour-and-half before the crash.

The pilot cancelled flight-following during the approach to Ocean City Municipal Airport and there were no further communications from the pilot. A review of preliminary flight data showed the airplane descended from 2,000 feet to 700 feet above ground level before radar coverage was lost.

According to the NTSB report, the pilot had accumulated about 81 hours of total flight experience. The pilot’s logbooks were not available for review and his night flying experience could not be determined. A review of the operator’s rental minimums revealed the pilot did meet the qualifications to rent the Cessna Skyhawk aircraft. In addition, the rental agreement did not specify night flying minimums.

“Night flying requires that pilots be aware of, and operate within, their abilities and limitations,” the NTSB report reads. “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.”

According to the NTSB report, spacial disorientation occurs when a pilot has difficulty differentiating the dark sky from the dark water.

“The most noticeable difference is the limited availability of outside visual references,” the report reads. “Therefore, flight instruments should be used to a greater degree in controlling the airplane. Crossing large bodies of water at night in single-engine airplanes could be potentially hazardous, not only from the standpoint of landing or ditching in the water, but also because with little or no lighting, the horizon blends with the water, in which case depth perception and orientation become difficult.”

According to the NTSB, weather conditions that night were partly cloudy with a nearly full moon obscured, creating visual challenges for the pilot.

“During poor visibility conditions over water, the horizon will become obscure and may result in the loss or orientation,” the report reads. “Even on clear nights, the stars may be reflected on the water surface, which could appear as a continuous array of lights, thus making the horizon difficult to identify.”

According to flight school personnel at Martin State Airport, Ngwa rented the airplane on the day of the accident for a short flight to Ocean City Municipal Airport. Preliminary information from air traffic control revealed the pilot flew direct and obtained flight-following, or the use of radar advisories, en route to Ocean City Municipal Airport.

Witnesses at Ocean City Municipal Airport reported seeing the airplane conduct a touch-and-go landing before departing the traffic pattern. According to the flight school, the airplane was not rented for an overnight trip and the pilot was expected to return to Martin State Airport.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.