One evening this summer, my wife and I were flying down the southern shore of Long Island in my father’s E33 Bonanza. We enjoyed the sunset as we flew westbound and our plan was to fly the New York Hudson corridor, where we would arrive just after dark. As we approached New York’s airspace, two voices in my head started having a debate.
The first voice said: “You should turn on your landing light when you get to New York to make the airplane more visible.”
The other voice said: “That’s true, but I bet you’ll burn the landing light out”
Well, as it turned out, both voices were right. My landing light fired right up when I needed it to fly the Hudson, but when it came time to land back home I had no such luck. Unfortunately, this was not the first time that I had been given the chance to practice my blackout landings. This Bonanza model has only one landing/ taxi light which is mounted in the lower cowling behind the propeller. This location is less than ideal because the filament in the bulb is fragile and can be damaged by engine vibration.
We landed uneventfully and after putting the airplane away, I decided it was time to look into upgrading the lighting to something a little more modern. I was unsure of my options, but seeing as the airplane needed a replacement bulb regardless, it seemed like a good opportunity to make a change.
After doing a little reading, I learned that HID or LED landing lights would be the best solution to my problem. I was familiar with LED aircraft lights, but had never heard of HID before.
Here is what I learned:
HID Landing Lights
HID, or High Intensity Discharge landing lights, create light by arcing electricity through a sealed gas capsule. They are brighter than LED and traditional incandescent, and the light created more closely resembles the look and feel of sunlight. HID installations require a ballast to carefully regulate the flow of electricity to the gas capsule and also require a “warm up” period after being turned on in order to reach their full brightness.
Fitting an aircraft with HID landing lights tends to be more expensive and time consuming than installing an LED light and would likely require involvement by an A&P/ IA. However, if you want the brightest light available, HID is probably the best bet.
- Brighter, more natural looking light
- Draws less power than standard bulbs
- Long bulb life
- Does not generate much heat
- More expensive than other lighting options
- Lights must “warm up” after being turned on
- Cannot be pulsed easily
- Cost/complexity of installations
LED Landing Lights
LED, or Light Emitting Diode landing lights, have no filament and work by moving electricity through diodes which are connected into a circuit. These lights have become very popular for many uses due to their simplicity, low cost, and brightness.
While not as bright as HID light, the LED lights require no “warm up period” and can be easily pulsed. LED lights draw much less power from the aircraft’s electrical system than traditional bulbs and boast incredible life length. LED bulb installation is very simple and can often serve as a direct replacement for the original lights.
- Instant light (no warm up)
- Incredible life length (>5,000 hours)
- Low Cost
- Simplicity of installation
- Can be pulsed easily
- Low power draw
- Not as bright as HID lighting
After weighing the options, I decided to replace the incandescent bulb in the Bonanza with an LED bulb. I read the reviews online and talked to some of my friends who work in aviation and eventually decided on the Lycoming Alphabeam. The Alphabeam is FAA/PMA approved and is available through Aircraft Spruce and other aviation parts vendors. The bulb cost around 250-300 dollars and I was able to install it as a direct replacement for our old light. All I had to do was take the old one out, put the new one in, and make a logbook entry.
Below are some pictures of the installation:
Last weekend I finally had an opportunity to take the airplane out after dark and see how the new light compared to the old one. I am pleased to say that it did a wonderful job and exceeded my expectations.
If you are interested in seeing a side by side comparison of the different lighting options, a quick Google search should provide what you are looking for. In my own experience, I would say that the LED light was brighter than the old light and did a very good job illuminating the taxiway and runway. It was extremely nice not to be concerned that my light wouldn’t work as I was setting up for landing at an unfamiliar field after dark. I also enjoyed feeling that I had the option to leave it on during climb and cruise in order to increase my visibility to other aircraft.
Many models of aircraft have multiple landing/ taxi lights installed which greatly reduces the likelihood of having to land without one. In our case, spending the extra money to upgrade to the LED bulb made sense because of the desire for increased reliability. If you are looking for a relatively inexpensive way to upgrade your airplane, LED or HID lighting may be something to consider.
Andrew Robinson is a 135 Charter Pilot and flight instructor who lives with his wife and 2 daughters in Pennsylvania. He flies Pilatus PC-12s and instructs in Beechcraft Bonanzas.