Hello Jamie, thank you for your comments. There are definitely things you can do to reduce your chances of CFIT accidents. I think I can emphasize the point better with a couple of stories.
Years ago, my cousin and his best friend were aviation nuts. I had the opportunity to fly them both for a 100 dollar hamburger in a Piper Aztec, and saw the enthusiasm they both had for flying.
A couple years after that flight, the best friend had earned his private and instrument certificates, and was flying regularly with his future father-in-law. One night, he and his father-in-law were flying from the Denver area to a small airport (their home base) on the outskirts of the Colorado Springs Class C airspace, and something went wrong.
The father was a private-rated pilot with no instrument rating, but had a thousand or so hours under his belt. They were intimate with their knowledge of the area and had flown this particular flight dozens of times at night. As the two descended, they ended up flying into the trees at cruise speed with obvious consequences. How could this happen?
In my own opinion, there were quite a few factors that led up to the accident, but the fact is that when both men departed on that flight, neither one of them thought they were going to crash.
First of all, night flying and IMC are one and the same to me, and filing and flying an IFR flight plan is a way to reduce your risk. They had not filed any sort of flight plan. At some point during their flight, they encountered IMC conditions, and filing while airborne would have been an easy and safe option. The cloud formation they encountered is common in this area, and usually only localized around a rise in terrain known locally as The Black Forest. If timed right, descending through the layer will cause you to break out well above the area surrounding Colorado Springs. If timed wrong, you know what happens. Fly IFR at night.
One night I was flying a Mooney from Sterling, Colorado to Norman Oklahoma. I had filed an IFR flight plan as a matter of habit, and I was soon going to be thankful for that move.
The sky was crystal clear, but there was no moonlight. In that region of the country, there are very few farmhouses spread far apart, so ground-based lights are sparse, and reference to instruments is often necessary. Suddenly, I smelled smoke, and the whole outside world was completely black. The farmers were burning their fields, and the smoke was so thick, it was obscuring the whole sky. If I had not been instrument rated, I would have been in big trouble.
These are two examples of how decision-making can influence your flight safety, but there are flights you can take to hone your skills as well.
Controlled flight into terrain accidents seem counterintuitive. How do pilots fly perfectly good airplanes into mountains and trees without having a sense of foreboding? It’s very easy, really.
A Cirrus SR22 cruises at close to 220 miles per hour. You’re covering 3.6 statute miles every minute at that speed. If you want to see how quickly you can get into trouble in IMC or at night in mountainous terrain, just take a sectional chart and plot a couple circles at 3.6 and 7 miles away from your airport. (Aspen is a good one for this) If you overfly the center of the airport at pattern altitude, how many seconds do you have before you impact the nearest feature at your altitude? That’s the reality. You are flying a machine that rivals the speed of a dragster. When you get near the ground, your situational awareness is a necessity.
In order to demonstrate how this works, take your instructor to the nearest airport you fly out of that has obstacles of some sort. Do this during the day with no weather, of course. Overfly the airport at pattern altitude and fly toward the highest obstacle (hill) in the area, noting your time. As you approach the obstacle, make sure you do so at an angle, so you can safely turn away. (Just like mountain flying) How much time does it take to get there? If doing this during the day gets your attention, imagine doing that same flight at night or in IMC. Your vigilance needs to increase 100 fold during those conditions. Distractions of any kind can be fatal.
To further enhance your skills, make sure you fly instrument approaches into those same airports with your instructor riding shotgun. It should help your situational awareness, and your perception of what’s safe tremendously.
This was a long-winded answer to your question, but I hope it’s food for thought.