The NTSB says the cause of the accident was that abracadabra has five syllables, not seven. At least that was my takeaway from the final report the agency issued on the nocturnal crash of a Cessna 150 at Twentynine Palms, California.
The unfortunate hero of this drama was a 24-year-old private pilot who seriously bent metal after executing an off-airport landing on a road, after running low on fuel, after failing to find the airport at night, after he couldn’t activate the pilot-controlled runway lights.
Ummmm … right.
Okay, well, there’s plenty of aeronautical decision making (or lack thereof) to talk about, but what really caught my attention was that the NTSB took the pilot to task for not checking the procedure for turning on the lights prior to his flight and further claimed that he used the incorrect procedure.
Now, as a reminder for veteran pilots, and as an introduction for student pilots: Pilot Controlled Lighting is like one of those timers you use to turn your living room lights on and off when you’re on vacation so that burglars will think you’re at home. Only it uses a radio between the power source and the light instead of a timer. This radio is designed to listen for mike “clicks” on a designated frequency, and when it hears them, it activates a relay that allows the lights to come on like magic.
The agency, which went so far as to include a copy of the airport’s Chart Supplement on the accident’s docket — showing that the airport has medium-intensity pilot-controlled lighting — then said: “To activate the pilot-controlled lighting, the pilot must key the mike five times in five seconds. The pilot reported that he did not check what the proper procedures were for operating the pilot-controlled lighting for the runway.”
That may well be true, but neither, apparently, did the NTSB.
The Aeronautical Information Manual tells us to “always initially key the mike 7 times; this assures that all controlled lights are turned on to the maximum available intensity.”
It then goes on to say that you can use a lesser number of clicks to make adjustments to the system, if the system is equipped to allow that. Our hero clicked his mike seven times, right out of the book. He even did it thrice with no dice.
Now, I’m not giving him a pass. What about his fuel reserves? What about looking for the beacon to find the airport? How about calling ATC for vectors? All legit issues, but instead, the NTSB threw him under the bus for not keying his mike five times to turn on the lights, when that’s not the proper procedure.
Shame on you, NTSB.
“Shame on you, NTSB.”
But having said that, later the same week a report from the Aviation Safety Reporting System was released with another pilot, at another airport, having problems with Pilot Controlled Lighting. So maybe it’s not just the NTSB that needs a refresher. Perhaps we all do.
Now, the NTSB was right in calling out light-boy for not bothering to check for the 4-1-1 on the lights before his flight, because even though the agency got the procedure wrong, there are a number of potential stumbling blocks that can leave the unprepared pilot in the dark. And proper preflight action starts with the chart.
On the VFR sectional chart, between the airport’s altitude and the length of the longest runway, you’ll find your first clue on the lighting.
If there’s a small hyphen between the altitude and runway length, there are no lights at all. So don’t be clicking up a storm.
Meanwhile, a lone “L” tells you that there are lights, and that they blaze away from sunset to sunrise. But as that eats up a lot of electricity, it’s somewhat rare nowadays, so more often you’ll see “*L,” which means the lighting isn’t on all the time.
In FAA parlance: Lighting limitations exist. It could be you need to call ahead and have someone turn them on for you or it could be you can do it yourself, in flight, using your com radio.
You need to check the Chart Supplement for the 4-1-1 on all of this, but sadly, once you get to the supplement, things aren’t quite so clear, and you need to look in three different places to get the whole picture.
The first place is the airport sketch, assuming the airport has one. This is where you can find icons that tell you more about an airport’s lighting. Look for circles with letters, sometimes accompanied by numbers. These symbols tell you what kind of lighting systems are installed. Now, if the circles feature what the FAA calls “negative symbology,” which is a fancy word for white print in a black circle, the lights can be controlled by pilots.
Which is where we come to our first stumbling block. Usually, Pilot Controlled Lighting is on the common traffic frequency (CTAF), but not always, so if you didn’t bother to check, and can’t light up the night, it could be you’re calling the wrong number.
The appropriate frequency is hidden under the SERVICE section, after the bold letters LGT, which stands for lighting rather than alternate genders, at least in this case. You may just find the letters “CTAF” if the common frequency is used, or you may find a specific frequency listed, if an alternate frequency is used for the lights at the airport.
Why would a different frequency be used? I’m not 100% sure, but I suspect it’s done when two airports with the same CTAF are close enough that pilots can unintentionally activate both lighting systems.
Meanwhile, more details about the lighting systems on each runway can be found in the runway details section for each runway, but we’re not done yet. AIRPORT REMARKS may also contain some lighting tidbits. Meanwhile, if you see “NSTD” anywhere lighting is being discussed, that means “non-standard,” so in that case — which is not the case at Twentynine Palms — there may be funky procedures for activating lighting. Stumbling block number two.
Moving on to the cockpit. The magic seven clicks of the mike are supposed to be done within five seconds, but in the real world, systems vary in their sensitivity to breaks between clicks. Click too quickly and the system (especially older ones) can mistake your multiclicks as one long click. But too much time between clicks won’t work either. Really, it’s kind of like Goldilocks trying all the porridge bowls to find the one with the right temperature. Stumbling block number three.
Related to this, I suspect, is the nature of the clicker itself. Do you have a sweet little built-in push-to-talk switch on your yoke? Or a ginormous after-market garage door opener button on a ribbon of velcro?
But wait, there’s more. Airplane radios vary in strength, with some having com antennas only mounted on the top of the plane. Add that to the fact the lighting system’s radios are low sensitivity — meaning you have to be close for them to work — and we get stumbling blocks four, five, and six.
Our last stumbling block is that systems can fail or may be down for maintenance, so you have to check for a Notice to Air Mission before you launch.
So it’s not just seven clicks to turn on the lights. There are also seven ways to screw it up.