Sound controls

Air traffic controllers sound alarm on DTW lighting system

(WXYZ) — Airport Approach Lights: These are an essential safety feature for landings, especially in bad weather.

But air traffic controllers say the lighting system at Detroit Metropolitan Airport often does not work properly.


During our investigation of problems with one of the instrument landing systems at Metro Airport, the 7 investigators listened to hours of air traffic control radar readings. By monitoring these exchanges between controllers and pilots, we noticed that something else was happening. The pilots kept asking the tower to turn on the lights when they were on approach. So we wanted to know what was going on.

Statistics show that half of all in-flight fatalities occur during final approach and landings.

“It’s a vital part of a pilot’s daily flight,” Josh Burns, a former commercial airline pilot and current pilot simulator instructor, said of the importance of the approach.

This is why it is essential to be able to see an approach clearly, especially in dense fog, snow or light cloud cover above the runway.

Web Supplement | Josh Burns on approach lighting

“You can cover those 80 feet in seconds. So when you pop out at 80 feet, you don’t see the runway pavement – ​​you see approach lighting system and runway lights shining through the fog in this poor visibility,” said Burns, who flew to Detroit. Subway several times.

Air traffic controllers at Metro Airport say their approach lighting system is old and the lights often go into outage mode.

This is an exchange between a pilot and the tower in September 2021:

Pilot: “If you could turn on the lights on 4 right, that would help everyone.”

Turn: “Standby”.

Pilot: “Thank you… I thought I was in the movie Airplane for a second.”

“Our runway and approach lighting system is archaic to say the least,” said a veteran air traffic controller who asked us to conceal his identity to protect his job.

This whistleblower says that when controllers need the lights in their brightest settings, they go into caution and fail mode.

“They won’t stay at the highest levels, and we need the highest levels when the weather is worst. So that’s when you need the lights to work, and when you spend most of your time at the board because they’re constantly breaking down, they’re constantly breaking down – and you’re not able to run at decent levels because of it,” the controller said.

Other controllers we spoke to off-camera told us that lights are a constant concern and that they often have to ask pilots to let them know if the lights are working.

Here is an exchange during the February 3 snowstorm:

Tower: “I just received a fault indication for 4 left approach lights, if you can let me know if they are still on or not… We had this problem yesterday and they were still on, so let’s cross fingers for that one.”

Pilot: “Tower, Delta 2767 – we have approach lighting too.”

Tower: “Okay, thank you very much.”

Another pilot: “On the white center line there are about five burns. On the red on the side there were 2 solid red shafts, then 2 more burnt out lights, so maybe 15 burnt out. This may be the reason why you are getting an error.

“Trees” refers to the structure that contains the lights.

The FAA is responsible for maintaining the approach lights, while the airport is responsible for the lights on the actual runways.

Each year, the FAA inspects the airport to ensure that Wayne County is in compliance with all regulations. The 2021 inspection took place in August and the whistleblower says it took hours longer than expected.

“While they were doing their inspection, numerous runways and approach lighting systems failed,” the whistleblower said. “Every lead that they inspected – the electricians were following right behind them to come by and try to fix the things that they were showing. And it was one lead after another.

Based on these findings, the FAA inspector found:

-that some “runway exit lights were not functional without a work order”

-other lights were “obscured by paint and duct tape from [the] track” and had no work orders,

-some of the runway lights “did not provide an accurate reference to the user”.

The airport then corrected these issues on the runway and re-trained its operations staff/electrician.

But air traffic controllers say the approach light system has still not been repaired. This is something pilots call concerning.

“I’m going to abort this landing if I don’t see the lights I need to identify the runway – I’m going to miss the approach. So if the controllers ask me if I see the lights, I wonder what the problem here,” Burns said.

In a statement, the FAA said, “All DTW lighting systems are currently operating safely. Experts inspect the system weekly, and the FAA and the airport monitor performance at all times. If a light is out, the FAA makes repairs, tests it, and returns it to service. Multiple systems on the runway and in the aircraft allow pilots to land safely.

So far, the FAA hasn’t answered our questions about what it does to keep the approach lights from going into failure mode.

The 7 investigators have asked the FAA for more detailed documentation of their approach light inspections, but so far have not provided it. We will continue to claim them.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at [email protected]