Frugal Flyer: Lighting up with LEDs

A new generation of exterior LED lights reduce costs and improve performance

November 2, 2009

There are precious few aviation products that allow aircraft owners to reduce costs and improve performance at the same time, but LED lighting is just such a rarity.

Sure, aircraft lights are something that most pilots take for granted. They’re on or they’re off. They work or they don’t. And when they don’t, we buy new bulbs or power supplies, no matter the price, because we haven’t got any options.

But a new generation of exterior LED navigation, position, strobe, anticollision, and landing lights are drop-in replacements for their problem-plagued predecessors on an expanding range of general aviation aircraft. And the shift to LEDs (the abbreviation stands for light emitting diode) by aircraft manufacturers is taking place so quickly that, within a few years, the old incandescent lights are likely to be history.

The reasons behind the shift aren’t mysterious.

  • LED lights are much brighter.
  • They last longer (up to 60,000 hours).
  • They require far less electrical current.
  • They don’t need external power supplies.
  • Internal circuits allow landing lights to pulse or wig-wag.

“It’s a foregone conclusion that, within five years, all new aircraft will have LED lighting,” said Nate Calvin, co-founder of AeroLEDs, an aircraft lighting firm headquartered in Boise, Idaho. “It’s just a better technology.”

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LED lights improve flight safety because they’re easier for others to see. And since LED lights are designed to last far longer than the airframes they’re attached to, pilots can leave them on all the time. There’s no temptation to turn them off in flight to save bulbs or cut electrical demand, and there’s no danger of the lights developing excessive heat.

“We tell pilots to leave our LED lights on all the time,” Calvin said. “Be seen and be noticed. That’s especially important for slow-moving aircraft. They should be lit up like Christmas trees.”

Incandescent bulbs have always been problematic on aircraft because the fragile filament inside each of them can be damaged by constant vibration, as well as extreme heating and cooling. Most were designed for other purposes and adapted for aircraft use. LEDs aren’t bothered by such things, and FAA-certified versions have been designed for the aerospace industry.

The rub (and you knew there was a rub) is that the purchase price for LED units is as much or more than incandescent lighting systems (prices range from about $350 to $600 for LED landing lights, and up to about $1,200 for complete, 28-volt LED aircraft lighting systems). But just like the new low-wattage, long-life bulbs you’ve been using at home to conserve energy, the total cost of LED lights over time goes down.

Stu Horn, president of Aviat Aircraft, said his company is making AeroLEDs standard equipment on its Husky aircraft line, and he is encouraging owners of existing Husky aircraft to retrofit.

“LEDs are a better, more reliable product that cut ownership costs over the long term and reduce hassles,” Horn said. “Instead of buying replacement bulbs, we’re advising aircraft owners to buy LEDs instead. They work better and save money over time. And many Husky owners fly in remote areas where there are no FBOs and things like replacement bulbs just aren’t available.”

Horn estimates it takes about three years of standard bulb replacements to cover the cost of new LED units. And the new LED units require no maintenance and last longer than most pilots, or airframes.

“After three years, LED lights are essentially free,” he said.

E-mail the author at [email protected]

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Editor at Large, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.