Published date: 14 October 2022

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has released its report into the cause of a fatal accident at Lake Ellesmere in Canterbury on 21 November 2019.

The student was flying a Cessna 172 aircraft and conducting a solo night flight under visual flight rules. The aircraft had been operating in the Lake Ellesmere area for approximately 25 minutes prior to the accident. The investigation determined that the aircraft had been in a high-speed spiral descent prior to its collision with the terrain.

The student completed a commercial pilot licence cross-country flight test that morning before returning that evening to carry out the night flight training.

Our safety investigation determined that the most likely cause of the accident was fatigue combined with visual and sensory illusions, and the pilot’s low night flying time experience.

The effects of fatigue are a well-known threat to aviation safety. Fatigue can lead to the failure of pilots to recognise a rapidly changing environment, and it can slow and degrade a pilot’s decision-making response times. Fatigue causes them to be more prone to making errors and even worse at detecting them once they’ve happened.


CAA safety investigation report occurrence 19/8168 [PDF 886 KB]

Please contact the CAA media team for further information:

027 763 0000 |


A CAA safety investigation seeks to provide the Director of Civil Aviation with the information required to assess which, if any, risk-based intervention tools may be required to attain CAA safety objectives.

The purpose of a CAA safety investigation is to determine the circumstances and identify contributory factors to an accident or incident with the purpose of minimising or reducing the risk to an acceptable level of a similar occurrence arising in the future.

The safety investigation does not seek to ascribe responsibility to any person but to establish the contributory factors to the accident or incident based on the balance of probability.