Aussie investigators call for ICAO review of centerline runway lighting

May 15, 2019
Lighting runway centerline ICAO
The tracks left by the Virgin aircraft during the runway excursion. Photo: ATSB

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has recommended an international review of runway lighting standards after a Virgin Australia plane drifted off a runway in Darwin.

It has also renewed calls for the installation of centerline lighting at Darwin International Airport.

The recommendations are included in an ATSB report into the Virgin runway excursion in December 2016.

The ATSB found the Virgin Boeing 737-800 was landing on a wet runway at night in reduced visibility caused by heavy rain.

It touched down more than 20m to the right of the centerline and continued to the side of the runway, where its right landing gear ran off the edge and destroyed six runway lights along a 400m path before returning to the runway.

Investigators found there had been a relatively small increase in a crosswind in the critical few seconds before touchdown and the pilots were not aware of how far the plane had deviated.

They said the lights alongside the 60m-wide runway 11/29 at Darwin were further apart than would be normally be seen by pilots and the lack of centerline lighting resulted in “very limited visual cues for maintaining runway alignment during night landings with limited visibility”.

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This affected the crew’s ability to detect and correct the aircraft’s deviation.

“A wide runway without centreline lighting, such as at Darwin, poses a particular challenge for aircraft making approaches in darkness and heavy rain,” said ATSB executive director transport safety Nat Nagy.

“In these circumstances, centerline lighting greatly helps flight crews align the aircraft with the runway.”

Investigators also found that a disproportionate number of runway side excursions in reduced visibility happened on wider runways but not on facilities with centerline lighting.

They issued a safety recommendation that the International Civil Aviation Organization review lighting standards as a result of the finding.

ICAO currently recommends, but does not mandate, centerline lighting on wider runways.

Darwin — which is jointly run by the Department of Defence and the civilian airport operator — is the only one of two Australian runways wider than 50m without the center lighting.

This is despite a previous ATSB recommendation that it be installed after a 2003 runway excursion and a renewal of its concerns — in this case without a recommendation — after a 2008 hard landing.

Both operators have advised the ATSB that the installation of center lighting would be considered in future runway works.

Meanwhile, Virgin and Darwin airport told investigators they had initiated safety action which included providing flight crews with information about the specific risks of approaches to the facility.