Aviation safety issues and actions

Limited visual cues for approach at Darwin runway 11/29

Issue number: AO-2016-166-SI-02
Who it affects: Pilots operating into Darwin airport
Issue owner: Darwin International Airport
Transport function: Aviation: Airports
Background: Investigation Report AO-2016-166
Issue release date: 15 May 2019
Current issue status: Safety action pending

Safety issue description

The absence of centreline lighting and the 60-m width of runway 11/29 at Darwin result in very limited visual cues for maintaining runway alignment during night landings in reduced visibility.

Response by Darwin International Airport and Defence Flight Safety Bureau

On 18 September 2017, Darwin International Airport (DIA) advised:

The Department of Defence position in 2011 was as follows and DIA is not aware of any change to that:

a) Existing approach lighting at Darwin is appropriate for a Cat 1 precision approach runway.

b) Installation, upgrade and maintenance costs do not represent value for money.

c) The installation of runway centreline lighting is not imperative and will not be pursued (DIA are in agreement).

d) The option of reverting the runway lighting to 45m width would be costly and viewed as a low priority infrastructure change.

In previous correspondence Defence did indicate a concern for potential damage to tail hook equipped aircraft.

Under the terms of the Joint User Agreement, Defence is responsible for airfield pavements and lighting and is considering resurfacing of Runway 11/29 in about 2022. Replacement of runway lighting may occur as part of that project. Provision of centreline lighting could be considered at that time.

On 25 January 2019, DIA advised:

Darwin Airport is a Joint User aerodrome with the Department of Defence. As previously advised, and under the terms of the joint User Deed, the Department of Defence is responsible for forward planning of pavement overlays and upgrading or replacement of airfield lighting.

DIA will continue to consult with Defence on whether lighting upgrades, including centreline lighting could be considered for future works. A planning meeting is proposed for March 2019.

On 8 February 2019, the Defence Flight Safety Bureau advised:

The lack of centre line lighting at Darwin has been an ongoing issue for some time. Under the Joint User Deed, Defence and DIA are required to work together on any infrastructure matters. To date, Defence and DIA have been in agreement that runway centreline lighting is not supported for reasons that include upfront capital cost, ongoing maintenance issues and consideration of the potential effects of runway centreline lighting on aircraft taking the arrestor cables.

On 26 March 2019, DIA advised:

Northern Territory Airports (NTAP) and Defence met on Wednesday 13th March in Canberra to discuss maintenance, projects and operational matters associated with the Joint User Area at Darwin International Airport / RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] Darwin. A topic of tabled discussion was Airfield Ground Lighting (including a session on Runway Centreline Lighting) for RWY 11/29.  Both NTAP and Defence agreed that the use of Hook Arrestor Cable System on RWY 11/29 prevented the safe introduction of CASA MOS139 compliant Runway Centreline Lighting since the risk of FOD [foreign object debris] caused via damage to Runway Centreline Lights by the Hook Arrestor Cable was of significant concern. It was however tabled that both Runway Centreline Lighting and reducing the runway width from 60m to 45m would be re-considered in future major project design briefs.

ATSB comment

After a similar occurrence in 2003, the ATSB issued a recommendation that the Department of Defence (airport infrastructure owner) and Darwin International Airport (civilian facilities operator) consider the installation of centreline lighting and touchdown zone lighting on runway 29. The ATSB later reclassified the issue as ‘Closed – Not accepted’.

In response to safety issue AO-2016-166-SI-04, Darwin International Airport has undertaken safety action enhancing the en route supplement guidance to flight crews, which will help flight crews conducting operations into Darwin to more effectively plan for and respond to a partial loss of visual cues during approach. However, this action is not a completely effective way of addressing the risk: crew preparedness can reduce the likelihood of, but not prevent, an undetected loss of adequate visual cues.

The ATSB acknowledges the practical limitations of installing and maintaining runway centreline lighting, and notes that DIA have also stated that the feasibility will be reconsidered in future major project design briefs. The ATSB continues to encourage additional safety action by DIA and Defence, and has released the following safety recommendation.



Action number: AO-2016-166-SR-014
Action organisation: Darwin International Airport
Date: 15 May 2019
Action status: Released

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau recommends that Darwin International Airport address the risk of very limited visual cues for maintaining runway alignment during night landings in reduced visibility that arise from the combination of the absence of centreline lighting and the 60-m width of runway 11/29 at Darwin.

Additional correspondence

Response date: 13 August 2019
Response from: Darwin International Airport
Action status: Monitor
Response text:

DIA and Department of Defence (Defence) have concluded a consultation process re ATSB's Transport Safety Report. Runway centreline lighting and the 60m runway width were both key topics of discussion.

The unique "joint user" operations on runway 11/29 at Darwin International Airport including tail hook equipped military aircraft and the runway hook-arrestor system were discussed along with general civil operations in assessment of risk associated with the installation of runway centreline lighting.

The position of DIA and Defence remains aligned. Priority remains a CASA compliant aerodrome at Darwin for safe and efficient operations. DIA and Defence have agreed to the following actions to be considered and realised under the pending P0009 Defence National Airfield Works Project:

  • P0009 is the next major capital works project undertaken by Defence with contribution and input from DIA at Darwin International Airport. BECA has been appointed by Defence as the Project Management Consultant. The design consultant is yet to be appointed by Defence. The works at site are forecast to commence in 2021/22,
  • Develop a design solution under P0009 that reduces the existing 60m width 11/29 runway to 45m, eliminating runway centreline lights from any future design as they are still deemed unsafe for use with hook-arrestor operations,
  • Develop a discuss a design solution under P0009 for installation of new inset high intensity runway edge lights with suitable supplementary circling guidance capability for MOS139 compliance at the edge of the 45m runway; whilst maintaining a 60m overall width as preferred by Defence to maximise military operational capability whilst eliminating runway centreline lights from any future design as they are still deemed unsafe for use with hook-arrestor operations.

DIA notes that the runway centreline lighting identified by ATSB's letter on 9th May 2019 has been investigated and seems not to comply with the photometric standards of CASA MOS139. All were therefore deemed non-suitable. Neither DIA nor Defence intend to pursue runway centreline lighting at DIA in conjunction with runway hook-arrestor operations due to the increased risk of FOD. Such risk is considered too high.

ATSB comment:

The ATSB acknowledges the ongoing work by DIA and Defence to find an effective and practical solution, and will monitor progress and assess the safety issue on completion.

Last update 27 September 2019