Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights

Airplanes, especially big ones, are loaded with exterior lights. Here’s what they’re all for and how we use them!

Airplane Lights - What are they all for?

Lights Poem

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.

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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.

Taxi and Landing lights

Taxi and landing lights on a B-767. Locations vary on different types of aircraft.

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

NavLights

Wingtip Position (Navigation) 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.

767 Nav Lights and Beacon

The flashing red light means the engines are running.  Stay away!

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?

Light Switches

B-757 & 767 external lighting controls.

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.

landing_lights-night

30 second exposure of a jet on final approach. White dots are the wingtip strobes firing. Red dots are the red beacon flashing. © Clint Budd

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.

Light on for landing

Landing lights are turned ON (day & night) when near airports. © Kuhnmi 

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.

LED Landing Lights

LED Landing and Taxi Lights on a Boeing 767-300.

 


You Might Also Enjoy:

Savvy Passenger Guide to Airport LightsAeroSavvy Airport Lights
Everything you ever wanted to know about colorful airport lights!

 

AeroSavvy is written by Ken Hoke. Since 1984, Ken has loitered the skies in many vehicles, most notably the classic Douglas DC-8. He currently frustrates air traffic controllers in the US, Asia, and Europe as a Boeing 767 captain for a package express airline.
Ken can be reached here or any of these fine social media outlets:   

61 thoughts on “Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights

  1. Joseph Brown

    Im a 39 year old career transioner and concerting becoming a commercial airline pilot. What are my chances and how many years of training am I looking forward too?

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Joseph,
      That’s not an easy question to answer. If you are motivated and have the resources necessary (money and time) you can do it. The next few years should provide good opportunities for jobs. At 39 years old, your chances of making captain for a major US airline are slim (being a career First Officer isn’t a bad career, either! There are many others out there). There are a lot of good opportunities in foreign markets. China is exploding with aviation jobs right now.

      For more information on training time and expenses, do some Googling. Here’s one site I found with info that looks accurate: https://www.pea.com/become-pilot/

      Good luck with your career change!
      Ken

      Reply
  2. Ugur Kagan Kucuk

    Hi Ken,

    My name is Kagan. Flying a B777 as a first officer. I’ve been searching abt the “use of aircraft exterior lighting” for a research duty in my company. I couldn’t find any regulations abt how to use these lights exatcly. So I would be very appriciated if you can share the some resources of these useful informations.

    Looking for your reply
    Best regards

    Kagan

    Reply
    1. Anna

      If you see a distant light grow into a bright ball and then appear to be a jet as it turns, it is possible that you have witnessed an ET/time-traveling craft enter Earth’s atmosphere/dimension. A good example is found in this animated clip:

      http://youtu.be/2tvdrptXuDA?t=3m7s

      The jets I have seen do this are neither landing nor taking off.

      Reply
      1. Ken H. Post author

        Uhmmm… We’ll have to agree to disagree on ET 😉
        But we definitely agree that Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555 is the BOMB! Thanks for the link.

        Reply
  3. Stijn Barbé

    More modern airliners have extra switch(es) on the ext LT panel for logo lighting. These are only for marketing purposes of course.

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hello Stijn,

      Logo lights have been around for many years. I flew DC-8’s built in the 1960’s that had them. They may go back further than that.

      Logo lights are often mounted on the wings and illuminate the airline’s logo on the vertical stabilizer (tail).

      Although they are called “Logo Lights” they are not just for marketing. These lights make the aircraft easier for other pilots to spot during taxi and terminal operations. They really do enhance safety.

      Thanks for the great comment!

      Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Good question. Pilots will keep the red, green and white navigation lights on all the time, night and day; even when on the ground. The flashing white anti-collision lights will be on anytime the aircraft is in flight.

      Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  4. Roy Pacarat

    My questions has been answered since I always seeing the light of the airplane(Landing Light) day and night since I am near the airport. Hahaha, that is the reason. I’ve got new idea and insights. Thanks for sharing :)xoxo

    Reply
  5. Mile

    If you live in a town thats close to a big airport and at clear night you see a light red bright ball and its heading the airport is that meaning that a plane is landing?And also if that glow ball starts fadeing for few seconds and then again lights on what does that mean?

    Reply
  6. Janessa Ringler

    I just saw a REALLY high flying… Plane? It was so high up with a trail and alternating blue and red lights. Was it a plane, or something space related? I live right next to an airport, and planes don’t start landing this early. It was just weird, and I’m curious! Full moon and all! Lol!!!

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi, Janessa,

      From your description, it was probably a high flying airliner. If it had a trail, that was most likely a contrail lit up by the full moon. At high altitude, it’s hard to distinguish the colors of lights – They would have been red and white flashing lights. It would not have been something in orbit, satellites and spacecraft are too high to distinguish lights.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
  7. Raffi

    Hi, I live in a metropolitain area, roughly 40kms from one of the commercial airports here, my home is located where roughly 90% of these airliners make their approch for landing.

    Being outside on the patio at night for the past 15 years, with an unexaturated 50+ jetliners passing overhead per night, I have witnessed tens of thousands approches to land.. But something last night caught my eye, as it was something I had never seen before..and was hoping you could shed some light to aid my curiousity..

    Last night as this particular plane passed overhead, it made VERY LITTLE noise in comparison to all others that fly at that same/similar altitude. All lights typically found on a commercial jet were present and working, but what struck me was after it passed over, on the rear/back of both wingtips were 2 (1 on each tip) very strong white lights flashing at the same time, as opposed to in sequance like the rest of the lights.

    I kept my eyes on this one as I have never seen that particular aray of lights before, I also noticed the plane changing its course, veering away from the always used airport towards the less commonly used one, that only usually lands non commercial flights such as DHL, UPS, and FedEx planes.

    There were also another 2 planes in the area on approch to land that changed direction and began following closely behind…

    My question is what do those strong white lights flashing at the same time, as opposed to in sequance mean?

    Thanks.

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Raffi,

      Most large aircraft have the bright, flashing white anti-collision lights (strobe lights) on their wingtips. There isn’t any significance to how they flash. Many flash at the same time, others flash individually, not in sync with the other.

      If you like watching the aircraft on approach, a great app for your smartphone is FlightRadar24. You can use it to identify the aircraft flying over your house. http://www.flightradar24.com/

      I hope that answers your question!

      Thanks for reading,
      Ken

      Reply
  8. reonarudo biriamu

    i just saw a plane, flying overhead during the night, as it passed above me, it had a red light on the front, and a white one on the back, white ones on the underside of the wings and bodies.
    the front and rear lights were blinking, from rear to front, repeatedly, may i know what that is for?

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      That’s a tough one. I really don’t know what type of airplane that could be. If I had a photo, it might be easier to tell.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
  9. Moe Thant

    Hi…
    Let me ask a stupid question!

    Why do they choose the red color on the left wing tip and the green color on the right wing tip as positioning lights on aircraft?

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      That’s a great question!

      The colors and position of the lights go WAY back to the early 1800’s when the lights started appearing on ships to enhance safety. In 1848, the U.K. officially established the colors and location of the lights, and by 1897 the port and starboard red and green lights became international maritime law. The same guidelines were adopted for airplanes and now, even spacecraft.

      Why is the red light on the port (left) side and green on starboard? Someone in the 1800’s probably had a reason, but it was likely arbitrary. It doesn’t really matter which color is on which side, as long as all vehicles do it the same way.

      Isn’t it interesting that an arbitrary decision made in the early 1800’s now affects modern spacecraft design? Cool stuff!

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
      1. Rudolph Jensen

        Hi, I might have an answer as an ex Naval Officer. All ships use what’s called “The Rules of the Road” for navigating at sea. Vessels according to the rules of the road typically turn port-to-port when at sea. This means that if you see a green navigation light out front you don’t turn but if you see a red one you turn so there is a port-to-port passing. Ships will generally always attempt to turn to starboard to avoid other vessels (many captains have view-ports out the starboard side in their cabin). Red typically means “stop” or “avoid” and green typically means “go” so this may be the connection. A ship generally is more at fault for running into another vessel when that vessel was approaching from their starboard. Often times the other vessel may have no fault.

        I read that old ships were typically steered from the starboard because most people were right handed and it was easier to have the rudder off the right side of the ship. This would imply that visibility off the port bow was much lower for the person steering the ship than off the starboard bow (stardboard derives from an old English word for “steer side”). This implies that turning away from the “red” light or the port side was the best way to avoid collision. I’ve done almost complete 180s at sea to make sure a port-to-port passage is done. If you see a green light typically the other vessel would have easily seen you in the early days when ships were steered from the starboard quarter. Port-to-port turns away from the blind spot of the other vessel and allows both vessels to turn in the direction they have better visibility. Modern ships just use it as a convention so everyone knows which vessels should turn and in what direction to avoid collision.

        A quick question. You said that the red flashing lights were to warn people the engines were on. However, aren’t those lights also to warn other pilots and people on the ground of the blind spots for the pilot? My reasoning is that the lights are on when the plane is in the air (so everyone should know the engines are on) and on the ground and they are typically below-aft on the fuselage and above-center on the fuselage. These zones are typically not visible to pilots in most aircraft.

        Reply
        1. Ken H. Post author

          Hi Rudolph,

          Thank you for the informative comment. Great info!

          The primary purpose of the red anti-collision lights is to attract attention and increase aircraft visibility so two aircraft don’t bump into each other (on the ground or in the air). The lights are positioned on the fuselage so at least one can be seen from any point above and below the aircraft. The lights are bright enough to be seen for miles.

          Years ago, someone came up with the procedure of having the lights on from before engine start until after engine shutdown. This procedure really enhances safety for ground personnel. Although not the primary purpose of the lights, it’s a free bonus. 🙂

          Thanks for reading!
          Ken

  10. Vivian

    Hi, where are you located? I just saw the same thing, never saw that before and decided to come in and see online what it might say. I’m in Marin County California, just north of the GG Bridge

    Reply
  11. Jackie cook

    We have just flown to Spain from the uk and for approx 60 mins of the journey we saw what appeared to be a ray of light on the ground that looked similar to a round torchlight it was white in colour and appeared to be coming off of the airplane as it was moving with us …….. Can you shed any light on this please as it is puzzling us as a family?

    [edit: Sorry forgot forgot to say this was a daytime flight]
    Regards j cook

    Reply
  12. Julia

    Hi! Very interesting piece, thank you. I read/heard with the recent downing of passenger planes, that some lights denoted that the craft is commercial and carrying passengers…? I don’t pick that up in your article. Also, for a general interest item, show jumping obstacles have a white flag on the left and a red flag on the right hand side, so that one knows which way to approach the jump! Julia

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Julia,

      There are no special lights on aircraft that differentiate a cargo, passenger, or general aviation aircraft. Exterior lighting is very much standardized. Even military aircraft use the same lights (during an operation, they may have them turned off).

      Thanks for the comments and thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
  13. sally

    Question: I flew on a commercial plane at night, exit row, and noticed the lights located by the engines were never turned on. Is that the correct procedure?

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi,

      I really can’t say. It depends on the type of aircraft, what the lights are for, and the specific procedures used by the airline. I suspect the pilots did exactly what they were required to do. Airline pilots fly the same planes several times a day, every day. All of our normal procedures are memorized, rehearsed, and repeated on every flight. While it’s possible they might have forgotten to turn on some lights, most likely, they operated the aircraft in a perfectly normal fashion.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
  14. Jurgen

    Hi, i got a question:
    Is there a specific amount of lights in all aircraft?
    Theres one i saw yesterday at night, it was on very low altitude, had 8 lights(excluding the blinking red one) and it made no sound at all(you know, engines and stuff)

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hello, Jurgen.

      There are standard lights that are required by international agreement. Position lights, anti-collision lights, etc. I’m not aware of any rule that requires a specific number of lights – only that the required lights are visible. I don’t have enough information to guess what it was you were seeing yesterday.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
  15. Christine

    I just saw an aircraft fly over my home that I’m not sure what it was. It appeared to be flying low, I’m not really sure because it is late and dark out. The noise sounded as if it was an airplane flying low. And it was loud enough my husband and I walked outside to see what it was, thinking it was a medical helicopter. But the lights have confused me. There was a blue light where I’d assume the nose of the aircraft was. And only one white light on the left of the aircraft. And it was not flashing. I did not see a light on the right side. I’m not saying I couldn’t have noticed it in my bewilderment. It was just very unusual to me. It seemed because it was so low as though I should have been able to see some sort of outline in the sky or such even though it was dark outside. Not big on the whole UFO thing so I’m figuring there’s some sort of logical information you might be able to help me out with. Especially because I have 0 experience with aircraft. Lol. Thank you for any info you could help me with.

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Christine,

      It was likely a military or police helicopter or airplane. They sometimes have unusual lighting configurations.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
      1. Jon

        I’m going to guess it was a CV-22, the lighting configuration sounds right. Might have also resulted in your confusion of it sounding like a helicopter but flying like a plane.

        Reply
  16. Chidam

    Hey Ken,

    Thanks for the great article. Was wondering, is there any external lighting on an aircraft that distinguishes it from a passenger/cargo/military jet?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Chidam,

      Great question. Passenger and cargo aircraft are almost identical on the outside, including lights. Military aircraft sometimes have lights in slightly different locations due to unusual shapes or configurations, but they still conform to red/green on the wings and some sort of flashing anti-collision light(s).

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
      1. Chidam

        Hey Ken,

        Thank You very much for your reply.

        A suggestion for your future posts, I have been always curious and would be really interested

        1. To know about reasons as to why mobile phones are to be switched off in flight.
        2. About fuel dumping (Specifically, how safety is maintained while the fuel escapes close to the hot exhaust of the engines)
        3. How are pitot tubes protected from water ingestion and ice formation?

        Would be glad if you could answer a few of these questions on your future posts.

        Thank You!
        -Chidam

        Reply
        1. Ken H. Post author

          Hi Chidam,

          Your questions are pretty easy to answer…
          1. Cellular phones should be in airplane mode while in flight so the cellular transceiver doesn’t interfere with aircraft avionics. Airplane mode also increases your battery life!

          2. Fuel dump chutes are located on the aft section of the wing, well away from the engines so there is no risk of the fuel igniting.

          3. Pitot tubes are electrically heated in flight. They get really, really hot to protect them from ice build-up. Any water that enters the pitot tube flows out through a special drain.

          Hope that helps. Thanks for reading!

          Ken

      2. Benny L

        Hi Ken,

        Just discovered your site. Lots of excellent information for the aviation interested, thank you!

        Just an addition to what you said about military aircraft lighting. Most military aircraft (at least combat ones) also have something called formation lights, usually strips of green/yellow light bands, mounted on the fuselage, tail and/or wings. They are used for close in formation flying at night and in bad weather. I don’t think they are normally seen illuminated otherwise, so they are probably less well known.

        They, as well as landing lights for example, also come in IR versions, for covert use when you want to see but not be seen, except with night vision goggles.

        Reply
  17. Joel

    I was out walking my dog in Joliet, IL. I habitually watch jets fly over at high altitudes. Tonight, I saw a jet flying at a high altitude north to south with blinking white strobes but not red or green navigational lights visible. I thought it was required by law to fly with the red and green lights flashing. This is the second time I have seen something like this.

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Joel,

      The red and green navigation lights on the wingtips don’t flash. These lights are also very difficult to see from the ground on an aircraft at cruise altitude. When watching airliners from the ground, you’ll normally see the white wingtip flashing strobe lights and possibly a red flashing strobe on the belly.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
  18. floris de jonge mulock houwer

    Hi Ken,

    iam a bit confused about the collision lights. you said in the text that it goes on when the engine starts and is turned off when the engine is running. But in the comments you say that it has to be turned on always!. my question: so all collision lights are on after engine starts and the red one is never turned off (and is on during engine start)?. i also read somewhere that the white lights (strobe lights) are only on when the planes is near the runway because it can distract other pilots. seems to me that this is not true.

    could i ask you another question? the turnoff runway lights when are they turned on? when the plane enters taxi runways? or are they only turned on during the night for taxi. are they still on when the plane is near the gate? are they on when landing in fog i also noticed that the runway and taxi lights are turned off when the plane is on the holding line of the runway (it goes on after it passes this line)
    when are the landing lights on? (when the airplane enters the turnway? or are they on during taxi aswell ( heard that those lights can be dangerous about the eyes)

    as you can see i have many questions. i do a lot 737 simulations with PMDG and use angle of attack for information but this fundumental information is just misssing on that website. perhaps you know a good information website?
    if you know a better more realistic simulation of the 737 please let me know aswell, iam happy with pmdg but doesnit quite match the real simulators where i have been in aswell.

    Could you please help me out?? Thanks a lot!!

    Floris

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hello Floris,

      The red anti-collision light (beacon) is used from engine start to engine shutdown. The bright white flashing wingtip anti-collision lights are turned on as the aircraft taxis onto the runway and turned off right after landing so they don’t blind or distract other people on the ground.

      Runway turnoff lights are used at the pilot’s discretion. Everyone uses them differently. I use them when turning onto taxiways that are not well lit. Most pilots will also turn them on for takeoff and landing.

      Landing lights are indeed very, very bright. They are used for takeoff and landing and also when flying at low altitudes for additional collision avoidance protection.

      I can’t help you with 737 information or computer flight sim information. I’m not familiar with either.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
  19. Aladegbongbe adejuwon

    To be a pilot do you need to go to the university before going to a flight school.
    If you are to go to the university what course will you study.

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      It depends on where you live. In the United States there are aviation universities where students earn a 4-year degree and learn to fly at the same time. You can also learn to fly at a local flight school. To get hired for an airline in the U.S., it’s usually a requirement to have a 4-year university degree. It really doesn’t matter what the degree is in.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
  20. Abdullah bin Haseeb

    Hi. I was just wondering the wattage on these lights. Like the lights that are always flashing when the plane is in the air and you can see them from the ground. How many kilowatts are those? (Yes. I am incredibly weird and wonder about all sorts of weird stuff)

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi there,

      Airliner taxi and landing lights are somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 to 1200 watts. I’ve heard that a landing light that is left on for a few seconds on the ground is hot enough to light a cigarette. I’m not really sure the “wattage” of navigation lights or strobes. I found a reference that talks about navigation lights having a brightness of 400 Candelas. It’s a little tricky converting candelas to lumens.

      Hope that helps!
      Thanks for reading,
      Ken

      Reply
  21. Deloris Capps

    I saw a very large aircraft that had 3 very bright white lights in front of it- almost as it was pushing them rather than emanating from the aircraft. On the underside were 2 alongated vertical lights on each side of each wing where they began from the craft body. The craft wings were quite slanted back, not usual as most airplanes. Craft was very quiet and smooth in flight. Have never seen such before. What type of aircraft was this?

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Deloris,

      Without a photo, I couldn’t even guess. Air Refueling aircraft sometimes have extra lights on the bottom, but I can’t speculate without more information.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
  22. Tonio C.

    Hi Ken!

    I’ve heard an old story from the pilot of a Jaguar during the French Chad campaign talking about “green blinking lights” on the wingtips but I thought that the green nav lights never flash!

    Have you ever heard or saw such green flashing lights? If so, what kind of airplane can use that odd behaviour for nav lights?

    Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hello Tonio,

      Green blinking lights are not standard for civilian aircraft. There may certainly be an exception out there. Sometimes military aircraft have non-standard lighting. Perhaps another reader may be familiar with an aircraft with green blinking lights.

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply

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