You might not think about cabin lighting until you reach for the overhead light switch on a dark night and nothing happens. Maybe you dropped something on the floor or between the seats, or maybe you need to read a paper chart (remember them?).
There’s also instrument panel lighting. For many aircraft that still retain the 1970s Royalite plastic overlays, original-equipment panel lighting might be marginal at best—if it even works at all.
Then there’s lighting for passenger comfort. Many passengers may be accustomed to high-tech airliner cabin lighting. They won’t be impressed when you toss them a Maglite for their in-flight reading enjoyment.
The cabin lighting market for smaller aircraft is stark, mainly due to certification hoops. Still, there are some effective options that can help light up an otherwise dark cabin. Here’s an overview of the market that needs more options.
As Dr. Dodenhoff, our resident AME, describes in the sidebar on page 23, your eyeballs are sensitive to any lighting in a dark cabin. Before upgrading the system, you’ll want to address the instrument panel first. While some older instrument panels use a single overhead spotlight to illuminate the instruments, there are far better options.
For round-gauge panels, there are several choices. Perhaps the most expensive option is installing internally lighted instruments (they have incandescent lamps that are fixed inside the instrument) or instruments with a lighted bezel (a lighting tray that sits on top of the bezel and shines on the instrument glass). One look at the price of lighted instruments could have you considering other options, especially when upgrading the panel with a PFD—which requires a standby attitude indicator.
Consider Sigma Tek’s popular 5000B-series attitude gyro with internal lighting. It has a list price of nearly $1600 (compared to $1200 for a version without lighting).
If you’re not about replacing functional instruments just to gain lighting, lighting rings and wedges are the better choice, although not without potentially hefty labor costs. Lighting rings attach to the outer bezel of the instrument and give the appearance of an internally lighted instrument. In some ways, lighting rings might perform better than internally lighted instruments. That’s because the ring is designed to direct the light inward, potentially eliminating the parallax and blinding effect created by internal lamps.
Lighting wedges get in the way, however, when it comes time to reinstall instruments during maintenance. That’s because the lights are sandwiched between the instrument and the panel, or, if the aircraft has a “false panel” overlay, it’s placed over the panel structure and under the overlay.
Nulite Instrument Corporation, makers of the FAA-approved instrument wedges (priced at $76 each), says the product is considered a supplemental light to the original aircraft’s approved lighting system and won’t require anything other than a logbook entry to be made by a mechanic or certified repair station. Because the lights in the wedges are incandescent, they can often be used with the existing dimming circuit.
Speaking of dimmer circuits, UMA Instruments has a similar lighting concept with their EL-series of lightbezels. The UMA lights, which are available in various colors, eare solid state electroluminescent light strips rather than incandescent bulbs. As a result, they require a DC to AC inverter. Electroluminescent gives more uniform lighting coverage and generates little, if any, heat.
As for avionics lighting, nearly all modern stack-mounted systems have integral lighting, with displays that are controlled by a sphoto-detector for automatic dimming. Some units with color screens allow for contrast and brightness adjustments for ultimate customizing. Radios, including navigational indicators, are commonly wired to an avionics lighting circuit that has a dedicated dimmer.
It’s a challenge to find a system
that has STC and PMA approval for use in certified aircraft. For that reason, it will be up to the installer to determine whether a given product can be signed off with a logbook entry or by field approval. During our research, we found a few products that we think are worth chasing installation approval, if it’s required.
Aveo Engineering (the makers of external LED lights) offers several solutions to original-equipment dome lights. The Eyebeam Dome has touch controls with LED lamps that are available in different colors.
For more focused cabin lighting, the Eyebeam Touch has a swiveling enclosure, LED backlighting and capacitive touch controls. There are no mechanical switches to break, and dimming is accomplished with a brightness slider that’s also operated via capacitive touch. You can select white or red LED (each housing contains one of each), and the system doesn’t require an external power supply (each light operates on 9-to 32-volt input voltage). We think the Eyebeam lights are attractive and add a modern touch to updated interiors, since the units can be ordered in custom colors, however we think the standard anodized black or silver bezels offer a high-end appearance. The Eyebeam NVG is a four-color model—adding green and blue LED lights to the assembly.
Installing the Eyebeam Touch lights isn’t necessarily complicated but will likely require sheet metal fabrication for use in headliners that lack a solid mounting structure. The total diameter of the light assembly with the exterior bezel is 3 inches. Aircraft Spruce sells the Eyebeam Touch for $168, and Aveo has a lifetime warranty on the product.
Aveo told us that while the Touch-series products aren’t FAA approved, they are currently working with the Orlando, Florida, MIDO to obtain PMA approval. Aveo says FAA field approvals should be successful, as the products have complete DO-160G testing packages from independent EASA aerospace testing labs.
Whelen Engineering’s 70813 series LED cabin light is designed to replace the common A360 incandescent dome light. It sells for under $200. Whelen says the 70813 is shock and vibration resistant, and the LED lamps are rated for nearly 100,000 hours—more service than any cabin light will likely ever need to provide.
David Hoffman Products in Hot Springs, Idaho, provided the cabin lights for the Rutan Voyager and offers the Mod1 Cockpit Light for the rest of us. His products are standard equipment on the Cessna Corvalis, Lancair Evolution and Diamond models, to name a few. The independent lights are offered in red, green and white LEDs and have swivel-ball positioning.
The Mod1 lights can be installed in the company’s Mod 1 Overhead Console housing. The assembly weighs 4 ounces and ships with precut holes with plugs, so you can use all six cutouts or as few as you want. The housing measures roughly 6 inches wide and 9 inches long and mounts in the overhead using four standoffs.
roll your own lighting
Sometimes a bit of creativity is all it takes to achieve effective lighting, including the use of fiber-optic lighting “ribbons.” SPT Superior Panel Technology (www.SPTpanel.com) has the Fibrelite fiber-optic lighting system that can light a large area of the instrument panel (a single LED can illuminate up to three 3 1/8-inch instruments). The lighting ribbon is sandwiched between the panel and the instruments and can be connected to a battery for failsafe operation. A lighting package sells for around $300 and has STC approval. SPT also offers electroluminescent glareshield lighting strips. The strips are 18 inches long and flexible, to accommodate a variety of glareshield shapes.
If you’re considering a new interior, include cabin lighting in the planning. Some shops, including Air Mod in Batavia, Ohio, can work creative lighting solutions into the project, to include gooseneck reading and supplemental lighting.
Aveo’s Eyebeam Flex is a spinoff on the company’s overhead LED lighting products but packaged in a flexible neck with a remotely mounted touch control.
It’s important to stress that these kinds of lighting installations could require additional FAA approvals.
A word of caution: some color displays might be too bright for night flying when overhead spot and gooseneck lights shine on the photo-detectors. This will send the system into daylight mode, increasing the intensity of the display.
Frankly, we’re surprised that upgraded cabin lighting isn’t a bigger priority during interior upgrades. On the other hand, it might be, if shops offered more solutions. We suspect many owners don’t consider it.
“I couldn’t tell you the last time someone asked to have cabin lighting upgraded during an in-house interior project”, said Dodd Stretch from Airtex Products in Fallsington, Pennsylvania. According to Stretch, his company usually reinstalls the existing lighting when completing a new interior. He doesn’t think the market can even sustain new lighting products. We think it can, if the FAA would ease up on the approval process for installation or more manufacturers would earn STC approval.