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Training Tip: An enlightened decisionTraining Tip: An enlightened decision

Light gun signals

A flight instructor and a student pilot are reviewing scenarios that could arise during a solo flight in the traffic pattern of a towered airport. “Suppose your radios fail as you are taxiing to the runway for takeoffs and landings. How would ground and tower controllers advise you that you are cleared to continue taxiing, and to take off?” the CFI asks.

The ground controller would employ a flashing green light gun signal, and the tower controller would clear the flight for takeoff with a steady green light, the student responds.

How would ATC instruct you to reverse direction after the communications failure?

The pilot would see the only light gun signal that applies just to aircraft on the ground—a flashing white light that means, “Return to starting point on airport.”

Why might ATC send you back to the ramp?

If it is a busy time at the airport, having a no-radio aircraft in the traffic pattern might not be prudent, and would raise ATC’s workload. Or the controllers might recognize that a student pilot is in command, making it wise to send the trainer back to its base to discuss the situation by phone.

What if it is the student pilot who wants to return to the ramp, but gets green lights instead? How would you decline taxi and takeoff clearances, and call off the flight? Have you discussed this scenario with your instructor?

Communicating that message would be easier said than done without preparation. Having a cell phone on board, and knowing the control tower’s number (or being able to relay your intentions through the FBO) would help tremendously. Do you know that number?

If not, you’d have to improvise, perhaps flashing the aircraft’s lights at the tower—without moving the aircraft—to express your need for new instructions.

If the tower is radar-equipped, a more last-resort means of communicating your needs might be to change your squawk code from code 7600 to 7700. That would raise a straightforward lost-comm scenario to the level of an emergency. But in making a safety judgment, you would be exercising your “final authority” as pilot in command as to the safe operation of the aircraft.

Do other, less drastic remedies come to mind?

Given the complexity of such a scenario, it’s clear that having the tower’s phone number at hand, and a way to use it, beats most alternatives.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Flight Training, Pilot Training and Certification

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