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Training and Safety Tip: Seeing the light

Lost com emergencies

Interpreting light gun signals from air traffic control is something you should be taught during pre-solo training.

AOPA graphic.

This training is captured under the very broad “Emergency procedures and equipment malfunctions” requirement of FAR 61.87. “Solo requirements for student pilots” (sub-paragraphs (d)(11) for single-engine airplanes, (e)(11) for multiengine airplanes, (f)(10) for helicopters, and (g)(10) for gyroplanes). 

As a presolo requirement, light gun signals are taught, demonstrated, and then put on the shelf until night training when they are dragged out again and, hopefully this time, they are easier to see. If your training mostly occurs at a nontowered airport, this is an item that you should experience on at least one of your training flights at a towered airport.

As an emergency, lost communications is a sneaky one. Many times it is pilot induced. You usually don’t know your radios are inoperative until, well, they don’t work. There’s no warning light, no gauge to check that they are operating within a specific range. All that happens is it gets quiet, which may not be abnormal depending on where you’re flying. You don’t notice until you try to use them, and you get no response. If just the transmitter fails, you might still hear chatter on the frequency.

If you experience a communications failure, follow this immediate-action drill:

  • Ensure you’re on the correct frequency.
  • Turn up the volume.
  • Check the audio panel to ensure you selected the correct radio to listen to.
  • Turn the squelch off (you do know where that is, right?) to check if you can hear anything.
  • Check your headset and/or microphone connections.
  • Try your No. 2 radio (if equipped).

If that doesn’t restore communications and you must land at a towered airport, you’ll need to remember your light gun signals. Hopefully you have them quickly at hand—perhaps on your kneeboard or in your electronic flight bag. You can also download and print the Air Safety Institute Light Gun Signals Card as a handy reminder, and stop by AOPA’s booth at the Sun 'n Fun Aerospace Expo or EAA AirVenture to pick one up.

When flying to a towered airport while experiencing a lost communications emergency, remember to circle outside Class D airspace to determine the flow of traffic and look for light gun signals from the tower. Squawking 7600 on your transponder will alert ATC to your incommunicative plight. Follow the signals and land. You’ll need to get the problem fixed once on the ground. If you need to go back to your own maintenance base for that, coordinate your no radio departure with ATC via telephone.

AOPA Air Safety Institute staff

AOPA Air Safety Institute Staff members share a deep passion for aviation safety. As compassionate pilots, we bring together safety research, analysis, and knowledge in creative ways to share aviation safety education with you—with the ultimate goal of one day having zero fatal accidents in GA.
Topics: Student, Emergency, Communication
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