Let There Be Lights!

I have a problem. I’m impatient. And I have a short attention span. And, doc, when I lift my left arm really high I get this pain… Oh, right. The build.

With the wing kit ordered (Happy New Year 2021 to me!) I got obsessed with planning out the exterior lighting since a good chunk of it goes in the wings. I had researched various options from different suppliers with different strengths/weaknesses but really wanted a complete solution from a single vendor if at all possible. Then I learned of FlyLEDs.com. It’s an outfit focused in the RV market and apparently run by some Aussies (so points for that already) and unlike most (all?) other vendors doesn’t sell you something you can just bolt directly into your plane. Sounds awesome, right!

FlyLEDs really embraces the whole “amateur-built” concept by making you finish the build on the lights. (You’re building a whole airplane so how hard can this be, right?) Specifically they sell you the electronic components (circuit boards, LEDs, resistors, etc.) and you solder them all together. Now, I am old enough to remember (a) when Radio Shack was a thing and (b), in particular, Radio Shack’s “Science Fair 100 in 1” Electronic Project Kits. These were ingenious “educational toys” that allowed you to create a variety of electronic circuits by connecting components attached to a large board using wire and spring connectors.

That “IC Unit” looks pretty retro.

I was particularly drawn to circuits that blinked or buzzed. I recall there was a basic VHF radio circuit included but I never remember ever getting that to work. This nascent interest in electronics caused me to own a basic soldering iron as a youth (though what I used it for is now lost to my ever aging memory) as well as a resurgent interest as an adult in the much trendier sounding hobby of “making”. This, of course, required the acquisition of a “much nicer” soldering iron (in fact a soldering station!) as well as enough microcontrollers and other components to start my own “shack”:

“Alexa, what is ‘nerd obsession’?”

As you can see from the photo I had grand ambitions to build all sorts of internet-connected gizmos with sensors, displays, etc. In the end it mostly just fed my curiosity, though I did create a motor controller for a home-built TV lift and a cheesy Halloween special effect. Still, it gave me the confidence to tackle the FlyLEDs project without much hesitation.

Choosing a Lighting Option

FlyLEDs has a few different options to choose from when it comes to position indicators, strobes and landing/taxi lights. One of the primary choices to be made is whether to mount landing lights in the wingtips (integrated with the position/strobe lights) or in the wing leading edge. The integrated solution sounded clean and cool but I had heard that some traditional lighting options had issues with being obstructed by the forward edge of the wingtip. Plus, the limited space means the landing lights are not the brightest FlyLEDs offers and, if your going to do it yourself you might as well do it bright! So I opted for FlyLED’s “Original” wingtip light kit, which comes with complete with position lights, strobes and a controller board. I then added their tail position/strobe light as well. With this decided I felt “well positioned” to make the next choice.

Having decided to go with leading edge mounted landing lights there was really only one choice–for me anyway–FlyLED’s “Seven Stars” landing lights. These are their top of the line offering where the light level “goes to eleven” (or maybe seven…I’m not sure). Obnoxious? Perhaps. But they must be bright since they barely fit in your hand:

If they don’t work out at least I can use them as doorstops.

As an Australian company FlyLEDs does resell through Flyboy Accessories in the US but I decided to order directly from Oz to perhaps give the folks a bit more margin. (Plus the thought of the shipment potentially getting hung up in customs really excited me!)

Delivery and Unboxing

To my chagrin, US Customs decided to allow the heavy and obviously suspicious package through and it arrived in a week or so after ordering:

Nope, no kangaroo meat in here!

The contents were packaged well for the journey with ample bubble wrap and lots of little zip-loc bags of electronic components:

The kit includes all the lighting components plus DB-15 connectors, back shells and pins, thermal grease (for the numerous heatsinks), and even a length of solder!

Wingtip Light Assembly

The instructions that come with the kit are quite good so there’s not much I can add in terms of tips and gotchas. I will say, though, that for best results you should be somewhat proficient in your soldering technique, in particular getting the heat transferred from the tip of the soldering iron into both components you are trying to solder. This promotes good solder flow and clean results. The fact that some of the kit components are rather large can make this tricky.

One thing the instructions recommend is to test fit the large wingtip circuit boards to the wingtips and trim as needed. Of course, I had no wings yet but wanted to get started anyway. (Did I mention I’m impatient?) If I end up having to trim the boards after assembly I’ll just be very careful. In truth I’m not that worried. There are not that many (or fragile) components that need to be soldered on.

Assembly is quite straightforward, solder the LEDs, solder the big power resistors, solder the wire terminals, connect the two halves with ribbon cable. The position LEDs come in red and green (obviously) but it’s difficult to tell them apart just by visual inspection, though they come in separate bags. Take care not to mix them up. Helpfully, the circuit boards come with colored labels that you can remove after assembly;

It’s a bit hard to tell but each “half” of the assembly is sized to fit the correct location on the wingtip fairing.

The LEDs went on easily, despite the strobe LEDs being quite beefy, and the requirement to smear some thermal grease on the back side of each:

The blue film is just a protective covering and should be removed when you’re done.

When soldering the power resistors the instructions state to leave some clearance between them and the circuit board to facilitate airflow/cooling. To get consistent spacing I used a couple metal rulers to establish an offset:

Another detail only I will ever notice.

Once the LEDs and resistors are installed you can test the LEDs by connecting power directly to the contacts on the circuit boards. FlyLEDs recommends a 9-volt battery but I used my benchtop power supply. FlyLEDs warn that the units are bright and they don’t lie!

Can you see me now?!

The only “gotcha” I came across was my own confusion trying to understand the instruction on connecting the two portions of each wingtip unit. The kit comes with a length of 8-conductor ribbon cable and instructs you “cut this in half” to create two pieces, one for each pair of boards. After dutifully complying I discovered that each piece was very short–too short, in fact, to reasonably allow for the two boards to sit comfortably at the roughly 90-degree angle required. I then realized I had cut the ribbon cable the wrong way–perpendicular to the wires instead of lengthwise. Argh…

I looked online for a replacement and only found options from my standard vendors (Mouser, Digi-Key, and Arrow) in the 1,000′ spool variety. Not wanting to start my own ribbon cable distributorship I opted for some 4-conductor cable used for RGB LED strips. Another reminder to measure twice, go get some coffee, measure again, and then cut once.

Controller Board Assembly

Assembling the controller board is nearly as straightforward as the wingtip boards but takes a bit longer due to the number of components. Taking my time to ensure high-quality soldering it went together in about a half hour.

One component I did not solder is the included DB-15 connector. (You can see the empty holes on the right side of the controller board.) I did this because I plan to install the controller board in a project box and want to mount the DB-15 there. This means at some point I’ll need to perform some tedious wiring, soldering and crimping.

Controller Board Testing

Once all the wingtip boards and the controller board was assembled it was time for a bench test. I used standard electronics hookup wire to connect the wire terminals on the wingtip boards to the open holes where the DB-15 connector would go. (I haven’t mentioned the tail strobe yet, because there’s nothing to assemble, but I wired it in as well.)

Mmmm! Rainbow spaghetti!

In truth you can perform a preliminary test of the strobe lights without connecting them because the controller board features 3 LEDs that flash in time with the main strobes in various patterns controlled by the DIP switches. Of course I wanted to experience the “full effect” (sunglasses at the ready) and even cobbled together a test rig using some 3D-printed parts:

As with any moderately complex electronics project everything worked flawlessly and exactly as designed on the first go! I’m kidding, of course. I discovered that the strobe lights on one wingtip were not triggering, even though the onboard LEDs worked fine. I retested the individual wiring paths and ruled out a bad connection on the wingtip board. And thanks to some explanation in the instructions as to how the strobes were controlled I was able to so some troubleshooting of circuits on the controller board using a multimeter. In the end, though, I was stumped and emailed the FlyLEDs support alias.

I got a reply from Paul at FlyLEDs (I suspect the sales, support and information emails all go to the same place) who was super-helpful in helping me troubleshoot the issue. He asked me via email to test a few things, which I did, even uploading some video of the errant behavior:

Not at all annoying to listen to on repeat.

In the end we traced it to one of he IC pins not outputting the correct voltage during strobe sequence. This was highly unusual to say the least but, with the answer in hand, Paul graciously offered to have the team at FlyBoy send me a replacement. The great news is that since the IC is simple to swap out the replacement was super simple. This enabled me to stage a full-on test in my workshop, at night, with the window blinds pulled up–no doubt to the alarm of my neighbors.

There goes Mike, hosting another weeknight rave.

Landing Light Assembly

Compared to the wingtip lights and controller, assembling the landing lights was quite simple since they don’t contain any electronics, other than those that come already soldered to the circuit boards. Construction consists mainly of assembling some 3D-printed parts and screwing them–and the main circuit board–to a giant aluminum porcupine–er, I mean, heatsink.

Each landing light (I ordered two) includes a large 3D-printed piece which holds lenses for focusing/distributing the light from the tiny (but very bright) LEDs, as well as a set of spacers that help position the lens holder. After separating the spaces from their web (very reminiscent of building plastic airplane models back in the day) the instructions state to bond them to the lens holder using acetone, which reacts with the ABS plastic. This fact came in handy when I managed to crack one of the lens holders. I simply slathered on some acetone and waited for it to cure.

Look away if you have trypophobia.

The next step is to carefully snap in the small plastic lens cups and then, even more carefully still, snap the lens themselves into place. Each lens has a set of minute tabs that must align with gaps in the lens cups in order to fit securely.

You then screw the circuit boards to the heatsinks (after applying thermal grease) but I failed to get a picture of this step. All that’s left is to screw the lens assembly to the circuit board. At this point I discovered that the 3D-printed screw holes were a bit undersized (not uncommon in 3D printing) and some of the acetone-bonded spacers broke loose due to friction from the screws. However, I was not concerned since the screws are what provide the mechanical connection. I figured it would be no different then using loose aluminum spacers on other parts of the plane.

The finished result is two hefty pieces of kit. It’s hard to tell from the photo below because massive heat sinks are hidden by the circuit boards but, take my word for it, don’t drop one of these on your bare foot!

With the assembly done it was time to grab the sunglasses and test these behemoths. You’ll notice there are three connectors on each: GND, +12V and TAXI+. TAXI+ connects only the center LED to allow for “reduced airport denizen complaint mode” while taxiing at night. Apply 12V to the main connector and get ready for “Operation Suntan”.

As FlyLEDs says on their website, it’s hard to really illustrate how bring these lights are (amazing given the actual size of the LEDs). You’ll just have to take my word for it that I could have had some fun with my neighbors if I was that kind of person.

Now, when are those wings gonna get here so I can actually start building an airplane!