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FAA Discusses Pros and Cons of Airport LED Lighting with Industry Stakeholders

Dec. 3, 2014

The FAA, this fall, held a symposium regarding LED lamps and their application on airports. Over the course of two days, the agency and industry stakeholders, including NBAA, discussed the pros and cons of LEDs, and began the development of a path forward to benefit all users.

At this symposium, the FAA made technical presentations on LED research, and outlined a proposed operational flight test plan for LED approach light systems that could be deployed in the U.S. National Airspace System. LED airport lighting has been an item of interest for FAA’s Flight Standards Service for a number of years, and the focus has primarily been on the issues involving enhanced flight vision systems and the inability to “see” LEDs due to the lack of an infrared signature.

The FAA noted that little operational flight testing has been done, because the FAA has not installed LED approach lighting at any location other than at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ. Additionally, many airports have expressed an interest in replacing traditional incandescent lighting with LEDs for economic reasons, including airport ground lighting such as approach light systems, runway centerline, taxiway, and ramp lighting.

The agency said it intends to sponsor the development of an LED flight test plan, which will include all the appropriate FAA services and offices, as well as input from those in the aviation industry who wish to participate.

Feedback regarding LED lighting is desired in the form of ASRS filings, and via NBAA directly through Bob Lamond at rlamond@nbaa.org.

“The ability to safely transition from instrument flying to visual flying close to the ground, especially at night, combined with the trend toward more and more installations of enhanced flight vision system (EFVS) technology on business aircraft, means this issue must be solved sooner rather than later,” said John Kernaghan, from the NBAA Access Committee. ”The FAA and operators have invested heavily in EFVS technology.”

LED Lighting in Aviation

In 2007, the Department of Energy (DOE) enacted the Energy Independence and Security Act, which mandated that incandescent lamps of certain wattages no longer be produced. As a result, airport operators slowly began to replace runway, taxiway, and obstruction lights with LED lamps. Approach lighting systems and visual approach path indicators are considered navigation aids and fall under the control of FAA technical operations personnel, while the runway, taxiway and other surface lights fall under the control of FAA airports personnel.

Unfortunately for aviators, there are several issues that have arisen as a result of the DOE mandate, along with the two different FAA entities controlling the lighting installations, and certain equipment currently installed on aircraft.

When the DOE mandate came out, airports started changing the lamps. At that time there was no mechanism in place for the airports to inform the FAA that LED lamps had been installed on the airport. There is now policy in place for airports to report to the FAA the installation of LED lamps and the FAA is now building a database of airports with LED lamps installed.

As a result of two FAA organizations controlling the installed lights, there are instances of incandescent approach lighting systems guiding pilots to runways with LED lighting installed. When first installed, the LED lamps were much brighter than the incandescent lamps when both were set at the same intensity level. As a result, many pilots, when flying an approach to a runway in low visibility conditions, were seeing the approach light system as they always have and, as they approached the runway, were blinded by the LED lamps, resulting in a go around.

Recently, the two FAA organizations have worked together to "harmonize" the lamps so the intensity levels are closer and a normal transition from IMC to VMC can occur, however, the corrections are only accomplished when reports from pilots are received.

View the FAA’s resources on LED.