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In the U.S., at night (as defined in FAR 1.1) at a non-towered airport in Class E surface airspace with pilot controlled/activated runway lights, is it legal for a pilot to takeoff and/or land if the runway lights fail to operate?

And, would the answer be the same if the weather was IMC and the aircraft was operating under IFR?

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    $\begingroup$ Likely makes a difference whether or not it is a part 135 operation-- $\endgroup$ Jan 3 at 0:50

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In VFR conditions, no there is no restriction against landing in an airport where runway edge lighting or other airport lighting is not lit at night. That being said, without any visual references, it may be very difficult to locate where runway is or judge or hide above the runway in order to land. In addition if additional lighting is not available i.e. glide path lights, approach lighting, etc. is not illuminated. With absolutely no airport lighting visible, you’re going straight into a black hole and maybe in very real danger of striking obstacles or a CFIT attempting this.

If you have approach lighting in glide path lighting, you can land with relative ease, provided your aircraft is equipped with landing lights. I found this out early on in my flying experiences, where I once landed at Ponca City airport (KPNC) at night. The PCL system would only activate the approach and PAPI lights but the REL would not illuminate. Using the approach and PAPI lights gave me a guidance to the runway, which was illuminated enough by my landing lights on short final to properly judge and execute the roundout.

The same basic rules apply on an instrument approach. That being said, §91.175 (c) prohibits a pilot from descending below the DA or MDA on an approach without the runway, it’s markings, or runway lighting being visible. This is extremely difficult to do at night on an instrument approach without proper airport lighting operating, it would almost certainly require a missed approach be executed. But who knows maybe you got a pair of LoPresti Moonbeams that turn night into day on a straight in approach, illuminating the runway from far away enough to make it visible above the DA or MDA on a straight in approach.

Now the real question becomes one of risk management. That is, even if you can’t do this under the law, it probably is unwise to actually do so. Which one is wiser: Attempting to land here, or remaining airborne and flying to another nearby airport which has working airport lighting and land there?

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the response. Would you also agree then (considering all the circumstances in my question remained the same) that it would be legal to file IFR to the same (single runway) airport but there was a NOTAM that the runway was "closed" for "night" and "IFR" operations due to inoperatve runway lights? $\endgroup$
    – 757toga
    Jan 3 at 2:53
  • $\begingroup$ That I have no idea on. It’s possible that the ARTCC will not grant an IFR clearance from an airport which is closed at night due to in operative lighting. If you have another person on board with you and you do that, you could potentially be charged with 91.13 careless and reckless operation. And I dare say scheduled air carrier and charter SOP’s would prohibit such a thing. $\endgroup$ Jan 3 at 5:25
  • $\begingroup$ For commercial operations the company would likely prohibit the operation. Also, regarding 91.13 you don't even have to have someone else on board to be subject to that rule (if it applies to a situation) , it's enough if you don't own the aircraft yourself (i.e.,airplane being the property of another). Generally, I think the principles are the same between my question and comment above example. ATC probably has no role or responsibility when it involves an operation to an airport with a closed runway (or one with no lights). Interesting question...that's why I asked it. – $\endgroup$
    – 757toga
    Jan 3 at 18:23

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