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Lights, Please!

by Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

At airports where a variety of aircraft come and go, have you ever noticed how the transport planes are all lit up like Christmas trees even during daylight hours, despite clear weather and minimal traffic?

They want to make doubly sure everyone else in the air and on the ground sees them. In fact, it's standard operating procedure for airliners below 10,000 feet to fly with all their lights on.

Yet if you watch the private planes at that same airport under the same flight conditions, it's pretty obvious each pilot has a little different take on appropriate aircraft lighting during takeoffs, landings and flight in or near the pattern.

One pilot may have the landing light off and beacon on, another might turn the landing light and position lights on but keep the strobe off, and a third may have the strobe on and position lights off or some other combination.

Maybe the correct use of aircraft lights in general aviation is toward the bottom of the safe-practices list.

But when you consider that more than 98 percent of midair collisions occur before sundown and that nearly half take place in the pattern, the importance of lights during day operations - especially around airports - is sobering.

Add to this mix such factors as reduced visibility, heavy traffic, and myriad cockpit tasks that divert your focus from avoiding - and being avoided by - other aircraft, and you really begin to "see the light."

Moreover, as pilot examiner and flight instructor J.C. Boylls points out, it's darn tough to spot the nose-on aspect of a small plane with its lights off; from that perspective, an aircraft's cross-sectional area is quite small.

Still another consideration is our feathered friends. Did you know that birds, which commonly hang out near the coast, lakes and refuse dumps, are more likely to notice an approaching aircraft and move out of the way if its lights are illuminated?

Last but not least, turning on aircraft lights and rotating beacon or strobe while taxiing is among the FAA's 10 best practices for preventing runway incursions.

The Federal Aviation Regulations offer minimal guidance about which lights to use and when, apparently leaving this to the pilot's judgment. FAR 91.209 says aircraft position lights must be illuminated both on the ground and in flight from sunset to sunrise. However, it doesn't say anything about daytime operations when, for example, visibility isn't the best.

The rules do require that anticollision lights - the rotating beacon and/or strobe - be on at all times, day or night, unless the pilot believes they would compromise safety. But notably missing from 91.209 is any mention of landing lights.

The Aeronautical Information Manual is a bit more helpful. It describes "Operation Lights On," the FAA's voluntary pilot safety program that encourages aviators to turn on the landing light whenever they fly below 10,000 feet or within 10 miles of an airport, when visibility is reduced, during takeoff and in areas where birds congregate.

Yes, there are times when lights can be a safety hazard, a nuisance or downright wasteful. During late hours of the day or at night in the run-up area, facing an aircraft on final approach, your landing light and pulsating strobe won't do the incoming pilot any favors. And a strobe flashing in the clouds as you descend to or climb out of an airport can be quite distracting. Indeed, some aviators argue that strobes aren't of much value during daylight hours in clear weather.

But the best "see and avoid" strategy, as commercial pilots know, is to use more lights rather than fewer or no lights at all in the vicinity of airports.

So turn 'em on'even during the day, even if the weather is good and even if your illuminated craft does resemble a Christmas tree.

When he isn't flying, Paul Engstrom writes and edits from Sebastopal, CA.