On Final: Those Pesky Flashing Lights

On Final: Those Pesky Flashing Lights

We see them everywhere. On police cars, at railroad crossings, even on our airplanes. Do you ever go to Starbucks on Sunday morning at 0530, when absolutely no one is on the road, and still stop at the red light? I have been known to treat that red light as a “suggestion.”

Perhaps that kind of thinking is what got me in trouble.

As I taxied out in the CJ3 simulator at Proflight in Carlsbad, CA, all was well. It was check ride time but I was primed and ready. The sim was set up for a very low visibility departure from runway 18R at KMEM. Ceiling 100 feet. RVR less than 600 feet. We were doing a SMGCS takeoff. That’s an acronym  for Surface Movement Guidance and Control System. It’s an elaborate procedure where you follow a virtual pickup truck with its lights flashing to the taxiway, then stop and report to ground control for further instructions at a “pink spot” painted on the taxiway. It’s how they move very large numbers of FedEx airplanes from Memphis in really low visibility. You know, because it “absolutely positively has to get there overnight.” I had no intention of ever being in Memphis in this situation but what the heck, it was a check ride.

I also had no intention of having the FAA on board silently watching my every move.

“November 1865 Charlie, wind 180 at three, RVR less than 600, cleared for takeoff 18 right,” came the instructions. I turned on the pitot heat, rechecked everything, released the brakes and slowly lined up.

Then came the tap on my shoulder.

“Dave, we have a little problem,” said my instructor. “You just taxied over the flashing hold short lights.” And indeed I had. We had practiced this before. A series of flashing red and white lights were manually controlled by the tower and had to be off for you to cross them, even if cleared for takeoff. In my effort to do everything right, I blew it. And from the back, I heard something I had never heard in 48 years of flying.

“Sorry, were going to have to end the check ride.”

I was demoralized. Humiliated. Ruined. I would never fly again. I could not believe what I had just done. Something as simple as stopping at the flashing light. Something that I did all the time. I was sure the government would confiscate my airplane, Patty, and everything I owned.

The guy from the FAA went home.

“Dave, we’re going to have to do some additional training and then start the check ride again,” said my instructor.  And sure enough, another instructor jumped in the sim. We taxied out to the exact same position on the taxiway. “Dave, do you see those flashing lights over there?” he said.

“Yes sir, I do.”

“Don’t drive over those.”

Then we taxied back to the ramp, got another examiner and started the whole check ride all over again. I passed, and I bet I never make that mistake again.

Unless I am on the way to Starbucks.

Fly safe.

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