March 2009 Issue

The Approach and Runway Lighting Patterns

You just shot the best approach of your life, but you still have to pick out the runway from the visual clutter.

The Boeing 737 collided with 75-foot high electronic transmission cables, approximately 7000 feet short of the runway. The crew had been flying a Runway 27 localizer back course approach when the first officer misidentified street lights on a stretch of interstate highway along the east airport perimeter, thinking the lights were part of the runway environment. The FOs callout influenced the captain to continue below minimums for the approach and into the power lines. The crew executed a missed approach and recovered successfully at a former military airfield. No one was hurt. The NTSB found several errors that contributed to the mishap. For one, ATC failed to provide accurate weather information to the crew, which might have warned them not to expect visual contact with the runway environment while still more than a mile short of the threshold. Controllers also failed to vector the aircraft onto the localizer outside the Final Approach Fix and "committed other errors in handling the flight," according to NTSB, contributing to full-scale deflection of the localizer needle inside the FAF that called for a missed approach the crew did not make before impacting wires. Further, an FAA inspector conducting an en route inspection of the flight from the 737s jump seat did not inform the crew of the errors they were committing in the planning and execution of the approach. Ultimately, however, NTSB found the crews lack of approach planning, which among other things would have helped them visualize the type of approach lights to expect and when in the approach to expect them, was the probable cause of the crash.

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