I was flying out of Boeing Field (KBFI), something I had done hundreds of times before. Tonight’s flight was to maintain night landing proficiency, so after making landings at a few airports in the area, the adventure started as I returned home in the dark.
The wind was from the north, so the active runway was 31L. And because I was making the approach at night, I did what I always do: approach the runway from the north over Elliot Bay. As expected, I was assigned a left pattern to 31L.
I was on the downwind leg when it became apparent something was very different: The railroad tracks running parallel to the far side of the runway were lit with powerful white floodlights, something I had never seen before. These lights were powerful, overwhelming and directly in line with my expected view of the runway, including the tower beacon.
While I had a general idea of where I was with respect to where the runway should be, I didn’t know for sure. The pattern altitude is 800 feet, and I was wide while on the downwind leg to ensure no interference with departing traffic. The geometry of the situation and brightness of the lights presented me with something very unexpected. Simply put, I had lost the runway.
Various plans ran through my mind and started to reach a crescendo the closer to a landing I got. As I started approaching where I thought the runway should end, one of the more inane things running through my mind was the fear of appearing “stupid” by having to ask for help, at my home airport!
The answer, while seemingly embarrassing, was simple and clear. I contacted the tower. The conservation went something like this: “Tower; Skyhawk Four Mike Juliette, request vectors to the runway.”
“Skyhawk Four Mike Juliette; turn 180 degrees to the left; the runway should be in front of you.”
Sure enough, a standard turn to the left placed me directly on the approach path to a beautifully lit runway, which stood out clearly now that there was separation between the runway directly in front of me and the railroad working lights, which were now to my right.
I learned a big lesson that night, and it began with the hubris associated with overconfidence in my ability to deal with this unusual situation, as well as my deepening reluctance and embarrassment to ask for help so very late in the problem. The time to ask for help was the moment I recognized I was having difficulty picking out the runway (not after having gone by it). I was humbled by this experience but hopefully better for it. As Will Rogers once said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”