How to land an airliner with only 7 runway lights

Pilots are taught to use their initiative and to expect surprises. There was certainly a surprise in store for me one dark and stormy night a little over 35 years ago, but the use of initiative came in a most unorthodox way ― and not from the crew on the aircraft, but from a quick-acting van driver.

Flying a jetliner over the Pacific in the early 1970s was very different to today ― there was very little in the way of infrastructure in place. Navaids were few and far between and runways often short and basic. The event I am about to describe took place at night-time, while returning to the remote island of Nauru following an inaugural flight to Suva, Fiji.

Island of Nauru
The tiny island of Nauru, with the runway at the bottom.

The flight to Suva had been uneventful. The Fokker F-28s operated by Air Nauru incurred no runway limitations from the 1,700-metre sealed runway on Nauru, and Suva had a close-by alternate of Nadi, which had well-maintained NDBs, VOR and ILS.

The F-28 was also reasonably well equipped with navigation equipment. The principal ground-based navigation systems were VOR, ILS and ADF, and the Air Nauru pilots navigated around the Pacific using the basic skills we were taught during our early flying training. By using the “one in sixty rule,” two-hour fixes and forecast winds, we were accurate enough to calculate fairly good drift angles and ground speeds. This would get us into the “rated coverage” of the destination’s navigation aids.

Apart from the mid-Pacific forecasts, there were few surprises, and our aircraft’s manually-tuned “green screen” weather radar was also very effective. However, it needed accurate tuning and tilt calibration to ensure that active cumulonimbus tops were not overlooked.

As we were making an inaugural flight there were several VIPs on board and no expense was spared. One of the VIPs was the Honourable Hammer DeRoburt. He was the island’s first President, as well as the Minister for Civil Aviation. The track was to take us over the island of Funafuti and then on to Nadi and down the coast to Suva. Suva had a well-maintained NDB and although the Pavement Classification Number (PCN) indicated a comparatively low-strength runway, the F-28 could operate within the published limits. Formalities on arrival were minimal and the evening celebrations for the inaugural flight were filled with much food, laughter, speeches and promises of co-operation between the governments of Fiji and Nauru.

This collaboration continued for many years and the flight not only became a gesture of goodwill by President DeRoburt to assist other island states but also led to a vastly-improved network of communications and support, which was badly needed in the South Pacific.

The return flight the next night is the one that really sticks in my memory ― not only from an operational point of view but also because of the close ties that developed between the aircrew and ground crew.

NDB tower
Not a lot of margin for error when your flight depends on a single NDB.

Nauru’s NDB was a single transistorized unit and the rules in those days did not require a “navaid” alternate. However, it was always prudent to have one when operating in this part of the Pacific. The NDB occasionally suffered power outages, and as there was no automatic standby power, I would always carry enough fuel to divert to Majuro Atoll, which was roughly 500 miles away.

The closer airport of Tarawa, (then part of the Gilbert Islands, now a part of the Republic of Kirabati), had a longer, gravel runway, but no runway lighting. Another possible diversion ― Honiara in the Solomon Islands ― didn’t have runway lights either. Our principal alternate was Majuro, and its runway comprised 1,700 metres of coral and had portable runway lights ― or so we thought. What’s more, the VHF located in the scaffolding control tower was only manned for scheduled arrivals and so we could often only communicate using HF Inter-Island marine frequencies. Consequently, although Majuro was a legal alternate, it did not generate much confidence for a night diversion.

Weather checks before we passed the Point of Safe/No Return (PSR/PNR) by HF radio with Nauru began to concern me, as there was some heavy rain. However, we were briefed that it was expected to pass in 30 to 40 minutes. So we slowed to Long Range Cruise (LRC) to ensure we still had plenty of fuel on arrival to keep all our options open should anything unforeseen occur.

F-28 cockpit
Old school, but functional, the F-28 required pilots to know their way around the green radar.

I could see a situation developing where it would become necessary to make some decisions, and I asked Nauru to contact Majuro by telex ― there being no telephone or radio link ― to confirm that lights would be available if a diversion was required. We also wanted Majuro Tower manned and the latest weather reports. Even though we were told that forecasts for both Nauru and Majuro predicted fine conditions, we often found that the actual weather was very different from that forecast.

I was using the flights to and from Suva as Line Training sectors for a recently employed and experienced captain and although being pilot-in-command, I was operating from the First Officer seat. I recall discussing issues of hydraulic failure in the conditions of wet runways and other non-normal procedures as part of the In-Command-Under-Supervision (ICUS) training, but I certainly did not address the circumstances that unfolded as we approached our first decision point ― the PSR/PNR.

As rates of turn at high altitudes with the high TAS are very low at the permitted bank angles, I always allocated five minutes for a 180° turn to allow for those low rates should a turn-back be required.

At ten minutes before PSR/PNR, nothing much had changed, so I opted to discard the option of a return to Nadi — a closer airport than Suva — and decided to continue to Nauru. Accordingly, I began to concentrate on the approach to Nauru, with a possible but uncomfortable diversion to Majuro.

Hammer DeRoburt
“His Excellency (Hammer DeRoburt) would like to visit the flight deck…”

I answered a call from our senior flight attendant. “His Excellency, The President would like to visit the flight deck and watch the approach into Nauru — if that would be OK?”

President DeRoburt would never demand but would always courteously ask and would often request the jump seat. Of course, as he virtually owned the aircraft, we welcomed him to the flight deck.

On our charter flight the aircraft call sign was the aircraft’s registration, C2-RN1 and on this occasion we were using the registration and not an airline flight number.

“Charlie Two Romeo November One — This is Nauru Traffic.”

On this particular sector most of the radio transmissions were initiated by us to keep track of the situation, so I was very interested to hear what “Nauru Traffic” was about to say.

“Visibility is now 1,000 and the rain has just started and is heavy.”

“Is that 1,000 metres?” I asked.

“Negative, 1,000 feet.” was the reply.

This did not sound good. Now it was time for another decision, but not a final one just yet.

I posed the question of whether or not we should divert to my ICUS captain and his response surprised me. He thought we should divert to Majuro, even though we hadn’t received an up-to-date weather report. Furthermore firm communications had not been established, and we’d received no information regarding the availability of the runway lights.

Majuro Airport
Majuro Airport, now with much nicer facilities, on a tiny strip of land in the South Pacific. Not a great alternate.

I thought it would be best to hold in the cruise for the next hour and by then the rain “should” have passed. If not, we would still have enough fuel to divert to Majuro and this would give them extra time for the facilities to be activated there.

Therefore we slowed from about 420kts TAS to approximately 300kts TAS. On the flight deck it had become very quiet, almost surreal. As we reduced speed the wind noise reduced, my ICUS captain was silent, obviously unhappy, and the President just stood watching and not speaking. Then the rain started getting really heavy, smashing into the windscreen while the eerie blue and white “St. Elmo’s fire” flickered across the flight deck, but at least the ride was smooth.

The rain shadow appeared clearly on the radar as we got closer but the edges were diffused due to attenuation, so it was not possible to time any storm movement. As we were now within VHF range and slowly on the descent, I decided that the cut-off point would be at 10,000ft. If the situation had not improved as I anticipated, we would then divert.

The call I had been hoping for came loud and clear. “Visibility is improving to the West and the surface wind should allow you to land on Runway 12.”

My ICUS captain voiced relief and I was also pleased that the Majuro diversion would not be required. Although I did not realise it at the time, I would soon be very grateful that I still had the option of a diversion. It was still raining quite heavily but I could see the runway lights from above as we maneuvered to the west.

Nauru had recently had the Australian TVASI system installed but it only had a “day” setting, and consequently was overly bright at night. However, because of the reduced visibility, I requested the VASI to be activated to help maintain visual contact with the runway and to provide glide slope guidance during the final approach.

F-28 on coral
The F-28 was quite happy operating from short, coral runways in the South Pacific.

However, the next scenario presented itself very rapidly. The VASI lights came on, followed immediately by all the runway lights and the VASI promptly failing! We were later told the rain had caused the lights to fuse.

I quickly suggested to the President that he leave the flight deck and relax in his VIP suite. As he left he patted me on the shoulder and said something like “thank you captain.” He was such a gentleman!

It was now time to cancel the ICUS training of the new captain and I swapped seats. If there needed to be a landing without lights or a diversion, (and one of these was now very likely), I wanted to be in complete control.

Later I learned the ICUS captain never forgave me for the “seat swap” as he thought I had not recognised his experience and talents. From my point of view I did — that’s why I swapped seats.

I could now see where the runway should be and the visibility had improved sufficiently to allow me to fly visually. I asked the tower operator what was happening and was advised the “Techs are working on it. But…” he continued, “we have the emergency portable lights from Majuro, which were returned last week. Majuro has new electric lighting now. We are trying to get as many lights laid out for you as we can.”

I could see the lights being placed on the left side of the runway — about five if I recall correctly. Then the tower called to advise more heavy rain was approaching. My ICUS captain was clearly stressed, but I was not concerned with his attitude. Instead, I told him to call the tower and tell them “forget the left side of the runway and get me some lights on the right — and we are landing now.”

We had the fuel but I did not want to risk holding in heavy rain for much longer. At least I had good visibility now.

I asked for the undercarriage and flaps as I aligned the aircraft on final approach. With two lights on the right and five on the left, the lighting looked weird and there was a strong tendency for me to allow the aircraft to drift to the “two-light” side, well right of the extended centre line.

Nauru runway 12
On final for runway 12 at Nauru.

It was still raining as we crossed the threshold and with the windscreen wipers set to “fast,” the in-flight visibility was kept to a level where I could see all the five left-hand lights. The aircraft landing lights helped greatly as we touched down I deliberately steered the aircraft closer to the left side, away from the darkness. Flooded runways require a positive touchdown to prevent the ever-present problem of aquaplaning and as the surface was not grooved I set the aircraft down firmly. I rapidly followed up by selecting the “lift dumper” to make sure we would stop in the remaining runway length. It was very disconcerting not knowing where the end of the runway was.

In the end we landed OK — five lights on the left and two on the right. It didn’t require a high level of skill as the F-28, with its very effective automatic lift-dumpers and antiskid system, could stop on the most flooded of runways — except one made up of coral.

I was the one congratulated, but the real hero of the night was the crew-van driver. He had the initiative to break open the store and get the portable lights out to the runway, but as he threw them from the back of a utility truck he fell and broke his arm.

However, he did have some good news later the same evening. Not only had he made our landing almost routine but his wife had given birth to a son that very night! Later, I was told that they had christened him after me, but used my surname as his first name. Consequently, that little boy was named “Baston Cecil.”

I wonder if his son ever forgave him, or me?

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2 Comments

  • Capt. Maurie Baston has. Been my friend for many years. I have flown with him . Never have I met a pilot as meticulous in his weight/ balance and flight plan calculations.

    He is as well a most competent communicator, who explains to his passengers in direct plain language what he is doing.

    Flying with Maurie is a great experience and , always , a safe one

    This story is but a small example of the respect with which he treats flying.

    Ralph Selwyn

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