Airplane Lights – What Are They All For?

Aircraft · 6 min read · Sep 30, 2021
Airplane Lights

Airplane lights usually illuminate the skies around the busiest airports in the world. They are very bright and even bring some colors since there are red and green lights on every single aircraft.

But are these exterior lights we see on airplanes the same as the lights on cars and other vehicles?

Well, the answer to this question is not exactly.

Some airplane lights indeed serve a similar purpose to those on cars and trucks, such as helping the pilot see what is in front or around the airplane and improving safety, like in the case of emergency flashing lights and strobe lights used on trucks. However, there are other lights with other purposes on airplanes. A good example is the anti-collision light system. Here’s a quick look at the lights found on an airplane.

A commercial aircraft with lights on an illuminated runway at night.
Image source: https://eu.usatoday.com/story/travel/columnist/cox/2015/04/12/airplane-landing-lights/25584941/

What are the lights on an airplane called?

Most of the lights found on an airplane take the name from the system or the purpose of their application. The most common names are listed below:

  • Taxi Lights
  • Runway Turnoff Lights
  • Landing Lights
  • Anti-collision Lights
  • Navigation Lights
  • Wing Inspection Lights
  • Logo Lights

Speaking about the last ones on the list, it is essential to highlight that many people believe they are only for airlines to show off.

On the contrary, pilots and air traffic controllers may see them as a great aid to identify aircraft correctly, something that can be a matter of life or death.

Of course, you may find some variations to these names. For example, navigation lights are also called position lights since they help other pilots and air traffic controllers identify the airplane’s position and direction when they see these lights.

What lights do planes use at night?

From the list above, we could easily say that planes use them all at night. Now, they are not necessarily used at the same time.

Using one group or the other will depend on the stage of the flight. For example, taxi lights and runway turnoff lights are typically used when the airplane is on the ground, while anti-collision lights and navigation lights are a must during the whole flight.

What aircraft lights are required?

In general, all airplane lights are important. However, there is a minimum required for aircraft operation, and some could be left out in certain stages of the flight. In the end, the most important aspect is safety.

Ultimately, the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and the FAA provide the guidelines. However, to ensure safety, some airlines require their pilots to use navigation lights at all times.

Usually, each stage of the flight requires lighting or some lighting groups to be working. Here are some examples.

Examples of lighting groups used in different stages of the flight

  1. Ground operation requires position lighting, logo lighting for preflight inspection, red beacons to alert maintenance crew when the engine is running, among others.
  2. During takeoff and landing, all exterior lighting on the airplane is required to take visibility to the maximum.
  3. Only anti-collision lighting is required during cruise flights.
  4. While in the initial climb stage, landing, taxi, wing inspection, and logo lighting are on until reaching 18,000 feet of altitude. This is to maximize airplane visibility in busy airspace. They are not necessary above 18,000 feet when the cruise flight is initiated.
A central view of an aircraft on a taxiway with navigation lights on at night.
Image source: https://augustamsourcing.com/2018/05/01/

Green Light and Red Light

If you see an airplane in the middle of the night, you will see a lot of lights. However, there are only two that will stand out for their colors. A green light is always on the tip of the right-wing, and red light is always on the left-wing.

These red and green lights belong to the group of navigation lights, also known as position lights. Airplanes also have other position lights. These are generally white and pointed to the back of the airplane on the wings and the tail.

The main idea is that if other aircraft see the white lights, they know the that aircraft is flying away from them. Now, if other pilots see a red or green light, or even both, they can easily know the direction and orientation of that airplane. This idea was first used by ships in the 1800s to avoid collisions or at least reduce their risk. Since it was a success, the aircraft community adopted red and green lights rapidly.

There has been a debate on the real effectiveness of red and green lights. Studies support that red and green blindness is the most common among color blindness types, with 8% of the men and 0.5% of women suffering this condition. However, others claim that red and green are the most different colors on the visible spectrum.

Landing Lights

As the name suggests, landing lights are the ones that help the pilots see the runway as they approach it for landing or when they are leaving it during takeoff. These lights are white, very bright, and very big to ensure they achieve their critical objective.

Landing lights allow the pilot to see the runway from 200 feet approximately, and the brightness should not be taken for granted. Landing lights are not recommended to be on when ground staff is near the airplane since they can be temporarily blinded and have some eye damage.

Usually, these lights are mounted on the wings, the fuselage, or the landing gear. Also, landing lights usually come with a companion set of lights called runway turnoff lights. These special taxi lights illuminate high-speed runway exits as the aircraft decelerates during the landing rollout. To do so, they are mounted with a small angle to point to the right and to the left, respectively.

A central view of an aircraft with landing lights on over a runway.

Strobe Lights

Apart from the green lights and red lights, strobe lights are another type in the group of anti-collision lights. The main difference is that strobe lights are white like landing and taxi lights, they are super bright that could make any person go blind, and they are constantly flashing.

These being the brightest lights on the airplane are mounted on the wingtips, and they are only used after takeoff and until the aircraft touches the ground. In fact, there are manufacturers such as Airbus using special switches that turn these two lights on and off based on the weight applied on the wheels.

When an airplane is flying over your head, you probably won’t see a red or green light, but you will see a flashing white light for sure since they can be seen from miles away. Once again, they cannot be used while taxing or waiting for takeoff clearance since they are distracting and blinding for other pilots. Also, ground personnel can be affected.

Flashing Lights

So far, we have mentioned different light groups, including the flashing lights mentioned in the previous point. But we are still missing one type that is flashing, and it is special for ground operations. Let’s see why.

As part of the anti-collision light system, strobe lights are used together with what is called a rotating beacon. A rotating beacon takes the name because a motorized rotating reflector was used to create the flashing effect. But this is a thing of the past, and led lights are now leading the way. They are located on the top and at the bottom of the fuselage to make the aircraft visible from any angle.

Since they will look like red dots in the night sky, rotating beacons are of great help to signal ground personnel of engine start. People walking near the airplane after the engine start can be more dangerous than people juggling chain saws. Therefore, a rotating beacon like this could be a lifesaver.

This said, let’s summarize the benefits of using flashing lighting on an airplane.

A passenger aircraft with landing lights on is landing at an airport.
Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vic_206/40010787533

Benefits of flashing lighting on an airplane

  • Aircraft visibility is improved.
  • Ground collisions are reduced.
  • Bird strike possibility is reduced.
  • Ground personnel injuries are reduced.

What about controls?

Controls may vary, whether it is a military aircraft or a commercial aircraft. Also, different military and commercial airplane models may show some variations in how they arrange the lighting controls.

Generally, external lighting controls are located in an overhead panel which is easy for both the pilot and its copilot to reach. Taxi and runway turnoff lighting controls go on the left and the one for the logo on the right. The other three switches are placed on the bottom to control landing lighting. There are four push switches above the landing lighting controls, which are dedicated to position, anti-collision, and wing inspection lighting.

Final thoughts

Lighting is an aspect that does not only help and keep the pilots safe, but also it helps and keeps the cabin crew, the ground crew, and passengers safe.

Therefore, the lighting of an airplane is crucial for safety and flight performance. Making sure each light group is working is always a must during maintenance and preflight inspection.

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Aeroclass Team
A team of professionals with a deep passion for the aviation industry bringing you the newest and the most striking industry-related news and content.

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