Technique: City Lights

Trying to find airport lights--among all the lights

November 1, 2008

Nearing the end of a 10-hour flight in 1994 from Frederick, Maryland, to Wellington, Kansas, I could see the destination had to change. The goal was Wellington to take an AOPA sweepstakes aircraft, the “Better than New 172,” in for its engine work. Bright lightning guarded the Wellington area 25 miles to the southwest, so I told controllers I would rather go to Colonel James Jabara Airport at Wichita.

Then the fun began. To avoid traffic, controllers providing flight-following services brought me into the Wichita area at McConnell Air Force Base, gave me a heading, and told me it would be the third airport ahead. “Report Jabara in sight,” the controller said. A portable GPS was badly needed.

It was a clear night except for the weather action 20 miles to the south. Counting McConnell as the first airport, I passed the Cessna Aircraft Field and erroneously reported Beech Factory Airport as Jabara. The controller suggested I continue ahead.

There were lots of lights around, but were they Jabara lights? I never saw the beacon and was over the center of the airport before I confirmed its name with the controller and landed. The engine shop picked up the airplane the next day.

That’s one of numerous occasions when well-lit airports were well-hidden at night. On another flight I was the copilot and had Blue Grass Airport at Lexington, Kentucky, right out my window (we were on downwind) and neither the pilot nor I could see the airport. The controller stayed with us through the turn to base when we finally found it. The airport was well lit, but the surrounding area was lit better.

A recent highly informal online survey of AOPA members reveals these additional airports that you may literally want to watch for when flying in an unfamiliar area at night.

Chino, California

Walter Bogaardt of Oxnard, California, was among the first to respond and sent what I think is the best comment of the entire survey. Here’s his take on Chino, California.

“I’d say the first time I flew night to Chino (CNO), I was literally on top of the airport to be able to see it and circled to land. The problem was twofold. It’s an airfield surrounded by city, but also, some sides are surrounded by pastures. The question is, do you look for the big black hole in the city lights or the lights in the big black hole?

“Another problem is airport lights often are aligned with wide city streets that parallel the runways. So from the distances wide streets with parallel lights could be mistaken for runway lights.”

Charleston, South Carolina

Norton Geddie of North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, reports difficulties at night for pilots flying to Charleston Air Force Base/International Airport.

“I fly into Charleston fairly regularly for both business and personal trips. It is a nice airport and for a busy Class C, the controllers are very friendly and accommodating to general aviation airplanes.

“Coming into Charleston International, especially lining up for Runway 21 at night, it is a challenge to find the runway. The airport is also an active Air Force base and they light it up so well for night operations that the runway lights are drowned out by the ramp lights on the right side of the airport. I’ve been vectored in and not seen the runway lights until I was lined up on final.”

New York area

Daniel Katz-Braunschweig of Brooklyn, New York, thinks Farmingdale, New York, may have a historic airport beacon.

“Two that come to mind are TEB [Teterboro, New Jersey] and FRG [Farmingdale, New York]. The airport beacon at FRG is about 20 watts and was probably dedicated by Wilbur or Orville. It’s impossible to find, and the runway lights seem to be perpetually set on low intensity. TEB is only visible when directly overhead or already aligned with a runway.

“Easiest to find: HPN [White Plains, New York], if you know what you should look for—the Avitat hangar’s bright white lights, and not the beacon (which disappears in the bright white lights of the Avitat hangar).”

Beaufort, South Carolina

Joe Farrell nominates his hometown airport not only as the hardest airport to find at night, but the hardest to find, period.

“Beaufort, South Carolina (ARW), in daytime it is hard to find. It has one 3,400-foot runway, lights only on the runway, tucked onto a spit of land next to water, with the lights of a southern town all around and a huge Marine Corps air base only four nautical miles away to distract your attention.

“Second: Windham, Connecticut (IJD)—tucked into a valley between hills that hide the airport and its beacon [when flying] under 3,000 feet for 10 miles on three sides.” Farrell says he has had to use his localizer receiver three times to find it in good weather.

Beyond training

The problems cited by our members go beyond what you may have picked up during night training for your certificate, such as distractions from ramp lights and city streets that run parallel to the runway. Or smoke from a not-so-near forest fire that results in unforecast low visibility, as happened to me at Columbia, South Carolina, one night.

If you’re thinking that following a GPS course is the solution, remember that you may end up on top of the airport at pattern altitude and in the way of traffic. It is also possible such an itinerant path won’t provide sufficient clearance above obstacles. Give yourself an altitude margin until you find it.

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has numerous articles and videos on the hazards of night flying. See them on AOPA Online.

E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | <em>AOPA Pilot</em> Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.