Everything was routine as commercial pilot Christina Kurowicki prepared to land on Runway 30-L at San Jose Mineta International Airport on March 26, 2015.
She had been flying in and out of SJC as a corporate pilot for a Silicon Valley Tech company since 2011.
It as about 8:30 pm at night, past sunset but before midnight. As she guided the Gulfstream 550 toward the ground, the light hit her.
“At first I couldn’t really tell where it was coming from,” Kurowicki said. “We just knew that we were getting beams of light in our eye.”
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Bright light flooded the cockpit, impairing her night vision and making it difficult to see outside. The beams were so bright, Kurowicki said, that it felt like a laser event. She could only look outside for moments at a time.
“The captain I was flying with noticed where it was coming from and we heard other pilots in the area complaining about the lights coming from the stadium,” Kurowicki said. “And at that point all we were really worried about was getting the aircraft on the ground safely.”
The lights were from Levi’s Stadium, which sits right in the flight path of runway 30-L.
“It was blinding. It was blinding,” said Kurowicki. “Incapacitating for sure.” Kurowicki and her captain had to work together to land the plane safely. She focused on the instruments while the captain did his best to look for air traffic.
“I was kind of mad,” Kurowicki said. “We got on the ground and put the airplane away and wrote our reports and as we were sitting there we were just pretty fumed.”
Kurowicki and her captain each filed a report with the FAA. She said the lights were so bright she ended up with a headache and her captain had to get medical treatment.
“Created a blind spot in my field of vision – had to rely on instruments until about 100 feet [above ground level] because of the distraction,” Kurowicki wrote in her report to the FAA.
A months long NBC Bay Area investigation uncovered at least five other instances of pilots complaining about Levi’s lights. Those complaints were enough to prompt NASA to send two different safety alert bulletins to the FAA, San Jose Mineta International Airport and Santa Clara’s Stadium Authority about the problem.
In one written complaint, the pilot of a commercial 737 attempted to land at SJC on May, 2014 while the stadium operators performed tests on the scoreboard.
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“The extremely bright stadium board display lights were on at full illumination and were an extreme visual distraction to us and other pilots on final approach,” the pilot wrote in his anonymous report to NASA. “The condition may create a problem of flicker vertigo for pilots.”
In another report, a pilot wrote that a sign on top of the stadium could be mistaken for an airport runway during bad weather.
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“This sign could be very easily mistaken for the PAPI for runway 12R under poor visibility conditions,” wrote the pilot, “leading an unsuspecting crew to mistakenly correct to the left while descending and subsequently put them on a collision course with the stadium itself.”
A Warning, But Just a Warning
The FAA issued a Notice to all Airmen, sometimes called a “NOTAM,” in 2014, safety alert bulletin.
“A NOTAM is strictly just telling pilots this is what’s going on,” said Jim Clarkson, whose been flying the skies around San Jose professionally for 26 years. “It has very little actual effect on anything other than to make you aware.
The FAA concedes it has not required that the stadium adjust its lights or change the intensity of the scoreboard.
“We know that it cost a lot of money to build that stadium, but safety has to be first,” Clarkson said. “So if we have to reduce the wattage, if we have to put a cap over the lights, maybe we even have to limit when we turn them on.” The FAA refused interview requests from NBC Bay Area, but in a statement, public affairs manager Ian Gregor wrote that most of the reports it reviewed were when the scoreboard was being calibrated, making it brighter than usual:
“The FAA relayed these concerns to the stadium operator,” wrote Gregor, “which agreed to provide the FAA with advance notice of all scoreboard testing and not to test or calibrate it at night during scheduled airfield hours.”
Yet when pilots complained about another nearby stadium used by the San Jose Earthquakes, the team did make changes to its lighting.
Are Changes Needed?
“I was shocked and rather perplexed as to the template response that I’ve seen from the FAA,” said Jay Rollins, a former American Airlines pilot with 20 years experience.
Rollins now owns his own aviation safety consulting business and runs a blog out of South Florida.
Rollins said that a warning alone is gambling with safety, and hopes the 49ers will take action.
“I think at a very minimum the stadium should be installing shielding,” he said. “And as I sit here I hope that’s exactly what’s going on, because to leave it as it is, to me, invites trouble.”
The San Francisco 49ers also turned down interview requests from NBC Bay Area, but in a statement, the team wrote that “stadium management actively collaborates with the FAA as it relates to large scale events held at Levi’s Stadium and has not been made aware of any concerns with the stadium’s video boards since last year when the boards were being initially tested and calibrated.”
Although the team said it was not aware of any incidents since the stadium scoreboards were being initially tested, there was an ASRS report made in December, 2014, after football season was well under way. And Kurowicki and other pilots who have flown over the stadium as recently as September, 2015, tell NBC Bay Area it’s still a problem.
The 49ers’ statement continued, “We have a great appreciation for the FAA and have worked with them to establish protocols and guidelines in the event the boards need to be recalibrated. Our top priority is always to maintain the highest level of safety and security for all guests visiting Levi's Stadium as well as the general public.”
Rollins said it’s time the community be made aware of these issues.
“I think this is one of those situations where perhaps the community needs to be aware that this is a serious problem,” Rollins said. “They really have to choose between whether the lights in the stadium and the excitement that goes on there is more important than the safety of these arrivals. And I would urge them that your own relatives could be on some of these flights.”
To see for yourself what can happen when Levi’s Stadium Scoreboard lights up at night. Video taken by Mark Kadrich on September 3, 2015, around 8:30pm Pacific Time.