Airplanes, especially big ones, are loaded with exterior lights. Here’s what they’re all for and how we use them!
Lights That Help Us See Outside
We have two kinds of lights that help us see stuff. The first are Taxi Lights. These lights are usually installed on the nose gear strut and/or each wing. We use taxi lights the same way you use your car’s headlights. They light up the taxiway at night so we can find the gate or the runway. The 767 has two taxi lights on the nose gear that shine straight ahead. It also has two special taxi lights, called runway turnoff lights, that point slightly left and slightly right so we can see while making turns.
Landing lights are usually mounted somewhere on the wings or underneath the fuselage. Landing lights are aimed so we can see the runway during takeoff and landing. When landing, they start lighting up the ground about 200 feet or so above the runway. Landing and taxi lights are extremely bright. We have to be careful with them on the ground, especially at night. Turning on the lights when ground personnel are nearby can cause serious retinal damage.
Collision Avoidance: Flashy, Blinky, and Colorful!
There are a lot of airplanes flying around; especially near large cities. It’s important that pilots can see other aircraft in the sky and on the ground. To help us do this, all aircraft have anti-collision lights to make them easier to spot…
Colorful Position Lights
On each wingtip you’ll see a red or green light. Red is always on the left wing tip, green on the right. Why? Because ship captains back in the 1800’s thought it was a good idea. The lights reduced nautical collisions so well, that they are now used on all aircraft and even spacecraft. Each wing tip also has a white light facing the rear. Some airplanes have a white, rear-facing position light on the tail. Position lights are always on, day and night. When pilots see another aircraft’s white position lights, we know it’s flying away from us. When we see a red and green light in the sky, we know another aircraft is heading towards us. The lights help us determine aircraft position and direction – thus the name “position lights.” 🙂
Flashy, Blinky, Anti-collision Lights
Nothing attracts attention better than a super bright, flashing light. That’s why big airplanes have several of them. Red beacons are located on the top and bottom of the aircraft. Blinding white strobe lights are on the wingtips. The white wingtip strobes are what you see when you stare up into the night sky and see an airplane high overhead.
Next time you are at the airport, watch the airplanes at the gates. The red flashing lights are turned on just before engine start and are turned off after the engines are shut down. Walking near an operating jet engine or turboprop is more dangerous than juggling chain saws. When ground personnel see those red lights flashing, they know the engines are running and the area is unsafe. The white wingtip strobes are typically turned on near the runway because they are a distraction to other pilots on the ground.
Light Switches – How do you control all those lights?
Thousands of watts of light… ten switches. The external lighting controls are located on our overhead panel within easy reach of either pilot. The taxi and two runway turnoff lights are on the left. The three big toggle switches on the bottom are the landing lights. The four black push switches control the position, anti-collision and wing illumination lights. Bigger switches are more important.
Why do pilots fly around with the landing lights turned on?
Great question! You might have noticed that we keep the landing lights on for several minutes after take off and before landing. Landing lights are so bright, they also make great anti-collision lights. When we are climbing or descending near airports, we turn them on so other pilots can see us; they can be seen for miles, even in the daytime. When we are near cruising altitude, we shut them off. If you’re lucky enough to be near a busy airport like Chicago or Atlanta on a clear night, you can see a parade of landing lights headed toward the runways.
LED Lights Are Now on Airliners!
As LED lighting technology advances, the aviation industry is quickly changing its light bulbs. Airports all over the world are changing runway and taxiway lights to LED.
Now that LEDs can be made super bright, they are being installed on airplanes. The new lights are just as bright as the old incandescent bulbs. The color of the LED taxi and landing lights is a little “cooler” or whiter than the warm, yellowish color of incandescent bulbs. The look great!
Why change to more expensive LEDs?
Airlines are switching to LED lights for the same reasons as consumers. The new lights consume far less energy than older bulbs (for an aircraft, that means less demand on the electric generators and less fuel burn). The biggest reason is that LEDs last far longer than incandescent bulbs. This corresponds to lower replacement and maintenance costs – it’s a huge annual savings.
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