June 18, 2013
By Dan Namowitz
What could be more startling than having a parked aircraft come to life just as you are passing by on the way to your own trainer? If no warning callout is heard from the pilot, and if no other indication such as a rotating beacon provides warning, you could find yourself uncomfortably close to that whirling propeller.
You wouldn’t want to be the pilot responsible for making pedestrians on the ramp jump. Avoiding that scenario means knowing the components of your aircraft’s lighting systems and using them to advance safety.
As a general rule, required equipment for day-VFR operation of small civil airplanes includes an approved anticollision light system, usually consisting of a rotating beacon, and possibly, strobe lights.
When must anticollision lights be on?
“Once that aircraft’s engine is started for the purpose of air navigation it is clear that FAR 91.209(b) requires that the aircraft’s anticollision lights be turned on,” wrote John Yodice in the September 2011 Pilot Counsel. He added, “It is important to note that this interpretation addresses what is specifically required by the rule. The FAA is quick to offer a safety precaution. The FAA recommends, as a matter of safety, that the anticollision lights should be on before starting an engine or causing a propeller or rotor to move. That is a common practice among many pilots.”
For night VFR, approved position lights are also mandated. Position lights, explains the glossary of the Airplane Flying Handbook, are “lights on an aircraft consisting of a red light on the left wing, a green light on the right wing, and a white light on the tail.” Regulations “require that these lights be displayed in flight from sunset to sunrise.”
Many aircraft operators promote safety and give themselves a hedge against a dead aircraft battery by leaving their rotating beacon switch on when shutting down after a flight. If the pilot forgets to turn off the master switch, the continued operation of the rotating beacon could serve as a reminder. And at the next startup, the rotating beacon will begin to operate as soon as the master switch is turned on, alerting those nearby that the engine may soon come alive.
Review Aeronautical Information Manual section 4-3-23 for a discussion of aircraft lighting systems operations, exceptions made in the interest of safety, and following manufacturers’ recommendations.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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