And then the lights didn’t go on

The trip was to fly a friend and some of his family, in his aircraft, to an airport where they were spending a weekend at their vacation home. I would fly the aircraft back so he could ride back a few days later with his wife who had driven up a day earlier. The Cessna 340 is IFR and known icing equipped, and the weather was VFR, but there was a definite ceiling. That ceiling was at 2700 ft AGL along the route. So, instead of flying low to the ground, we departed the airport of origin and climbed through the clouds, quickly passing through to on-top conditions and our cruising altitude of 9000 ft MSL.

Closing in our destination, the ceiling did not break up. It became obvious we were going to need to descend IFR until we cleared the cloud deck and were VFR below. Two challenges existed initially.

KBFA NOTAMs
What does “NA at night” really mean?

The first was the NOTAM on the GPS approach indicating that the approach is “NA” (not authorized) at night. We were flying at night.

Second, ATC did not have a “minimum vectoring altitude” (MVA) in the area that would put us below the ceiling.

We knew we needed to start an approach to become established and allow us to descend further, but were not authorized to conduct the approach at night. We also knew that well before reaching a final approach fix we would be in VFR conditions. Is it conducting the approach if you are VFR before establishing on any final segment of the approach?

It was a game time decision, and a gray area, but we decided to do it.

The descent took us through about 2000 ft of clouds, and while in them, light icing. Something no pilot really wants to hang out in. We were out of the clouds by about 3800 ft MSL and continued a descent down to 3000 ft MSL, the intercept altitude for the next approach. We were now tracking the approach path VFR. We cancelled our IFR flight plan at this time with ATC.

Continuing to track the instrument approach procedure in VFR conditions, we executed descents along the published approach path toward the airport. But we weren’t able to see the airport with less than 5 miles to go.

Fortunately, we were operating as a two pilot crew, so my friend physically flew the aircraft, now down at about 2000 ft MSL, slightly above the published MDA, and still tracking the approach course. I worked to try to get the lights on at the airport.

This particular airport has pilot-controlled lighting that is not on the CTAF frequency, but on a different frequency. The different frequency requires the crew to transmit their traffic intentions on one frequency, and operate lighting controls on a different frequency.

We were pretty certain that we had the correct frequency, but the lights weren’t coming on. It just wasn’t working.

Closing in quickly on the airport, we tried a couple of other common frequencies, 122.8, 122.9, 122.85, none of them working. The 122.85 frequency is the one that is supposed to work, but we still weren’t seeing the airport lights.

The GPS counted down and showed that we were over the airport.

Some time receivers for lighting controls can be finicky and not work at greater distances, but even directly over the airport our last ditch attempt failed to light up the runway.

Time for plan B.

Below a cloud deck, no longer with IFR ATC services, we couldn’t go back into the clouds, and obviously didn’t want to with icing, so we continued forward VFR.

Fortunately, a mere four miles away, another airport had runway lights that were shining brightly. The lights had been triggered as we were trying different frequencies at the original destination airport.

A quick left base and a turn onto final, we established a visual approach and landed there instead.

I regrouped there, dropped the passengers off, and headed back home for an uneventful flight back. The event left me thinking though.

Runway lights
When in doubt, go to the airport with full-time lights – and lots of them.

What if instead of 2700 ft overcast, it had been 800 ft overcast and we had conducted an approach to minimums before we found the lights didn’t work? What if our option when we didn’t see the airport was going to require a climb back into clouds with icing? How prepared are we really as pilots for going missed in challenging situations where the result of an approach doesn’t turn out to be what we expected? What would have happened if the terrain around the airport had been mountainous and hadn’t allowed us to continue forward as we tried to resolve the problem and determine a good alternate? What if instead of two crew members this flight had been with a single pilot?

I know. That’s lots of questions, but it’s all of those and more that went through my mind on the way home as I contemplated the result of trying to fly to an airport where the lights didn’t work at night when we expected they would.

It left me with a question of whether I had started a bad chain of events by even starting down to an airport along an approach path, even though it was technically VFR below the clouds, when the approach was not authorized at night. If the approach isn’t authorized at night, should that mean that a pilot shouldn’t fly there when they plan to arrive in VFR conditions? Or should we apply higher personal standards of minimums for a flight at night?

I don’t know the answer to those or the other questions, but I do know that this flight reminded me that we always need to be ready for something to not go as planned, or not work and require a change of plans. I guess one of the risks we always need to be aware of is our own complacency as pilots. Just when you think everything is going to go as planned, sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, the ability to have a good safe out plan can be critical to avoiding making the situation worse. Go to where the lights shine on the safest option and reset your game plan if necessary.

14 Comments

  • Good article on being prepared to deal with unforeseen circumstances. I would however say that no part of that approach can be done at night. There is no way to legally decend below MEA of 5000’ without flying the approach. Only inbound from the IAP can you decend below 5000’ after the IAF of either Jason or Cakom from LDN in the holding pattern. At least thats how I understand it. Still, good article. Thanks for writing it.

    • This is very much a gray area on this. A pilot is able to select varying IAP points on this approach (KBFA was the airport), so has an approach begun when you have selected “any IAP” and gone passed that point? A feeder route? Any enroute segment? Or is it only an approach officially when progressing past a final approach fix. In this case, we were able to descend on an IFR clearance to an altitude while maintaining our own obstacle clearance and remain above OROCAs and MEAs in the area to VFR conditions below, but then utilized the path on the published approach in VFR conditions to navigate to the airport. This does not break any IFR regulations and an approach was not actually flown in less than VFR conditions.

  • In the A/FD for KFRR, doesn’t is read LGT ACTIVATE MIRL 10-28 —CTAF? The CTAF/Unicom is listed as 123.0. Why did you think the pilot controlled lighting was on a different frequency?

    • Well, the question of the lights frequency is misleading here because the publisher has listed the incorrect airport for this approach. It was at KBFA following the path along the GPS 35. Lights are on 122.85, with UNICOM on 122.85.

  • You are on the approach once you have flown past your IAP. If the regulation say GPS approaches for that particular runway is prohibited at night, you should not have carried out the approach. Had there been precision or a non precision approach, you could have switched over. Please do not mix GPS approach, IFR approach and Visual.

  • Thanks for sharing the story and the lessons. Any of us who’ve been flying for more than a short time (and aren’t literal saints) have boxed ourselves into similar corners before. We’re lucky pilots when we get out OK the first time (as most do); we’re good pilots when we learn lessons so we don’t test our luck too many more times.

    For my own risk managemebt, I go with a three strikes rule now—if there’s one thing I’m concerned about (but is still safe/legal in itself), I manage; if there are two, I stop and think hard, and try to rearrange the flight; if there are three, I don’t go.

    In this case, you had a night flight (strike 1) to an unfamilar airport with no tower (strike 2) through ice (strike 3) where the approach wasn’t authorised at night (strike 4). If I were debriefing myself after this flight, I’d think that I could have eliminated one strike by planning on a different airport with an authorised approach, and another strike by choosing a towered airport (where ATC is there to help with problems like getting the lights on).

    That still leaves two strikes—night and ice—but you sound like you and your plane can handle those, assuming that the flight is important enough to you, and you’re aware that there will be an elevated risk level.

    • I like the 3 strikes rule. In our case on this, familiarity was part of the strike. It is an airport we go to regularly, the icing was very minimal, and we have come to expect things to work there. As a private airport (publically open), and not just in this case, non-standard oversight, maintenance, and systems can create challenges that can result in situations like this one.

  • An interesting side note on this, called the airport the next day, the week after, and a few days after that again. Turns out the lights weren’t working, they “hand’t gotten an electrician there yet”….and about 2 weeks later a NOTAM finally came out. The NOTAM is now gone, but I have yet to check it again at night to see if they are actually working yet. NOTAMs aren’t always all that current listing any broken or non-working systems. And, obviously, anything can break at any time, so keeping that out plan is always good.

  • Never a fun situation, especially at night! The NOTAM was probably because of the lighting, but obviously poorly written without explanation. Getting to ADENO at 3000 is ok, but on the other airways the MEA is higher and CARGA is an IAF so you are on the approach at that point. Having the lighting controlled on another frequency is odd, and at night reviewing the approach while flying is not easy. Most accidents or incidents are the result of several factors, so the three strikes risk management is a good idea. The NOTAM forced you to cancel IFR when in VFR conditions when it would have been better to stay IFR even though visual. Excellent points, and thanks for sharing.

  • The name of the airport is Boyne MOUNTAIN..? Are there mountains in the area? Without looking at any charts I would guess so. You had to leave the MEA or MVA (5,000 feet…?) and descend through clouds to begin an approach that was not authorized at night? WHY is it not authorized at night? Gee whiz, brother, I think you were really stretching things to call any aspect of the procedure you used grey. The whole endeavor looks as black as the night was. Was there a suitable instrument approach to the airport you inevitably landed at? Could you have shot an approach to THAT airport and then hopped VFR over to your intended destination? Sounds like you dodged a bullet on this deal. Glad it turned out okay. Next time, plan, plan, plan. Always have an out. But it does sound like you have enough time, experience, and wisdom to stay well ahead of the airplane. A lot of thought required after reading this one… Thanks.

  • +1 on the IAF defining the start of the procedure. The “procedure” is the point at which ATC no longer holds your hand, and that point starts at the IAF. The feeder routes are not part of the procedure. For clarity, any BOLD arrows define the procedure.

  • I think you answered your own question about not shooting the approach at night if the note says approach NA at night. Flying VFR especially at night and to unfamiliar airports, is more challenging than flying IFR.

    When you saw the lights of that other airport and simply flew there and landed, we’re you in communication with the CTAF Unicom or tower? Did you know the name of the airport?

    Your question about what would happen if the terrain around the airport was mountainous is something you needed to know before you left. Please do your due diligence. I know it’s not easy to share stories like this, but I’m glad you did. It helps everyone reading them.

    Eric

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