An American Eagle passenger plane aborted an initial landing attempt Thursday night at the Santa Fe Municipal Airport, officials said Friday, either due to weather conditions or because the main runway lights weren’t visible to the pilot.
The regional jet, on a flight out of Dallas/Fort Worth, circled the airport for more than 20 minutes at about 9:30 p.m. before flying to Amarillo, Texas, to refuel. It was able to land in Santa Fe when it returned at about 1 a.m.
“It appears what happened is when the plane arrived in the vicinity, there was a rain shower and it obscured the pilot’s ability to see the lights,” said Lynn Lunsford, public information officer with the Federal Aviation Administration, based on the agency’s initial information.
American Eagle operations is still awaiting a full report. An initial report only indicates the pilot couldn’t land due to “field conditions” and doesn’t specifically mention weather, according to Ed Marcel, a company spokesman.
Airport manager Jim Montman said that when staff members leave the local airport’s control tower each night at 9 p.m., they leave the main runway lights on low-intensity beams. “The lights were on when our guys in the tower left at 9 p.m. and were on when our maintenance man went to check at 10:30 p.m.,” Montman said.
The pilot of an incoming aircraft is supposed to be able to raise the intensity of the runway lights from the cockpit if needed. Montman said the low-intensity light is usually sufficient for pilots to land unless weather or visibility is bad. But Montman confirmed that the pilot-controlled lighting system at the airport wasn’t working. Airport staff didn’t realize that until Friday. The pilot may have tried to raise the light intensity and couldn’t, he said.
A heavy thunderstorm moved through the area Thursday night, and a lightning strike took out a light that was illuminating a wind sock, which helps pilots determine wind direction.
Two employees at the airport who were waiting for flights to arrive that night confirmed the runway lights were on, Montman said. They told him the pilot twice called to check whether the lights were on, but twice aborted attempts to land.
Jim Arnold, a Santa Fe resident who is president of a medical supply company, was a passenger on American Eagle Flight 2849, seated near a window on the small jet. He and other passengers could see a few clouds, lightning striking near Albuquerque, the lights of Santa Fe and the ground beneath. But Arnold, who estimates he has flown more than 700 times over the years to airports all over the world and survived two crash landings, said he couldn’t see runway lights.
“I know what runway lights look like,” Arnold said. “I didn’t see any.”
He said passengers were wondering why the plane wasn’t landing. After the plane circled for more than 20 minutes, Arnold said, the pilot made an announcement. “He said he had bad news. He couldn’t raise anyone at the airport to check the lights, and he couldn’t land without runway lights. He said we had to reroute to Amarillo to refuel. … He didn’t mention the weather.”
The pilot told passengers later that the plane was routed to Amarillo rather than Albuquerque due to weather.
American Eagle officials called Montman, who sent someone to check the lights. “They were on when he got there at about 10:30 p.m.,” Montman said.
Montman said that if lightning hits the runway lights, the whole system goes down. If there is an electrical outage, the airport has an emergency backup generator, inspected weekly, that comes on to power the lights.
The airport manager said whatever the problem was, the point is that “the pilot did the right thing. He left to make a landing elsewhere and then returned and had no problems.”
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