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'Let's cross our fingers.' Air traffic controllers say DTW has faulty approach lighting system

Posted at 4:13 PM, May 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-03 18:22:59-04

(WXYZ) — Airport approach lights: they are an essential safety feature for landings, especially during bad weather.

But air traffic controllers say the lighting system at Detroit Metro Airport often doesn’t work right.

Related:

During the course of our investigation into problems with one of the Instrument Landing Systems at metro airport, the 7 Investigators listened to hours of radar playbacks from Air Traffic Control. While monitoring those exchanges between controllers and pilots, we noticed something else was going on. Pilots kept asking the tower to turn the lights up when they were on approach. So we wanted to find out what was happening.

Statistics show, half of all flying fatalities occur during the final approach and landings.

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

That’s why being able to clearly see an approach is essential, especially during heavy fog, snow or low cloud-cover above the runway.

Web Extra | Josh Burns on approach lighting

“You can cover that 80-feet in seconds. So when you’re breaking out at 80 feet, you’re not seeing runway pavement-- you’re seeing an approach lighting system and runway lights just glowing through the fog in that poor visibility,” said Burns, who has flown into Detroit Metro many times.

Air Traffic Controllers at Metro Airport say their approach lighting system is old, and the lights often go into failure mode.

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

Pilot: “If you could turn the lights up on 4 Right that would help everybody.”

Tower: “Standby.”

Pilot: “Thanks… 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 that we conceal their identity in order to protect their job.

This whistleblower says when the controllers need the lights in their brightest settings, they go into caution and failure modes.

“They won’t stay in the highest levels, and we need the highest levels when it’s the worst weather. So this is when you need the lights to work, and when you’re spending most of your time at the board because they’re constantly going into failure, they’re constantly going into fault-- and you’re not able to run them at the correct levels because of this,” said the controller.

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

Here’s an exchange during the snowstorm on February 3rd:

Tower: “Just got a failure indication for 4 Left approach lights, if you can let me know if they’re still on or not… We had this issue yesterday and they were still on, so let’s cross our fingers on that one.”

Pilot: “Tower, Delta 2767 - we got the approach lighting also.”

Tower: “Alright thanks so much.”

Another pilot: “On the center line white there are about five burned out. On the red from the side, there were 2 full red trees out, then another 2 burned out lights, so maybe 15 burned out. That may be why you’re getting error.”

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

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

Every year the FAA inspects the airport, to make sure Wayne County is in compliance with all regulations. The 2021 inspection took place in August, and the whistleblower says it lasted for hours longer than expected.

“While they were out doing their inspection, numerous runways and approach lighting systems failed,” said the whistleblower. “Every runway they inspected – the electricians were following right behind them to go over and try to fix the stuff they were pointing out. And it was one runway after another.”

According to those findings — the FAA inspector found:

-that some “runway lead-off lights were non-functional without work orders”

-other lights were “obscured by paint and tape from [the] runway” and did not have work orders,

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

The airport later corrected those problems on the runway and provided re-training to their Operations/Electrician staff.

But Air Traffic Controllers say the approach light system still has not been fixed. That’s something pilots call concerning.

“I’m going to abort that landing if I don’t see the lighting that I need to identify the runway-- I’m going missed approach. So if controllers are asking me if I see the lights, I’m wondering, what’s the problem here,” said Burns.

In a statement the FAA said, “All lighted systems at DTW are currently operating safely. Experts inspect the system weekly, and the FAA and airport monitor the 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 has not answered our questions about what they’re doing to stop the approach lights from going into failure mode.

The 7 Investigators have asked the FAA for more detailed documents on their inspections of the approach lights, but so far they have not provided them. We will keep asking for them.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com.