Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights

Aircraft exterior lights and how pilots use them

Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy

All NEW – Completely revised with even more lights!

Airliners have a lot of exterior lights. Bulb locations vary with different models and manufacturers, but most airliners have the same types of lights.

Find out why airplanes have so many exterior lights and how pilots use them!

Lights That Help Pilots See Outside

Lighting the way so pilots can see where they’re going.

Taxi Lights

Taxi lights are usually installed on the nose gear strut and/or wings. Their purpose is similar to that of automobile headlights.

Taxi lights illuminate the taxiway several feet in front of the aircraft so pilots can safely drive to the gate or runway. The Boeing 757 and 767 have two taxi lights on the nose gear strut.

757 landing and taxi lights - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
Author with the 757’s “Christmas Tree.” Taxi and runway turnoff lights on top, landing lights on bottom.

Runway Turnoff Lights

Two special taxi lights, called runway turnoff lights are installed on the nose gear strut or wing roots. Turnoff lights are aimed to the left and right of the nose.

Runway turnoff lights illuminate high-speed runway exits as the aircraft decelerates during the landing roll out. The lights are also useful when making tight turns on taxiways.

Runway turnoff and taxi lights - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy

Landing Lights

Landing lights are the largest, brightest lights on an aircraft. They are typically mounted somewhere on the wings, landing gear, or beneath the fuselage.

Landing lights have a very narrow beam (think spot light instead of flood light) and are pointed slightly down so they illuminate the runway during takeoff and landing.

767 Landing and Turnoff Lights - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
767 landing light and the smaller runway turnoff light mounted in the wing root. Click for larger image.

When landing, the lights begin to illuminate the runway when the aircraft is about 200 feet above the ground.

Landing and taxi lights are extremely bright. They use 600 watt bulbs (automotive headlights are around 65 watts). Pilots and maintenance crews are very careful when using or testing these lights, especially at night. Turning on landing lights when ground personnel are nearby can cause severe eye damage.

Landing lights - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy

Landing & Taxi Light Bulbs

Landing and taxi lights use several types of bulbs. Just like cars, different aircraft types use different bulbs.

Landing light bulbs - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
757 Landing lights (GE Q4995X). Click for larger image.

Landing Light Bulb

The General Electric Q4559X (or incandescent 4559) bulb is used as a landing light on several Boeing, Airbus, and regional jet aircraft. The bulb is also used in the entertainment industry as a spot light because it’s ridiculously bright.

The Q4559X is an 8 inch diameter, halogen, PAR 64, 28 volt, 600 watt bulb. It produces 765,000 candlepower and is classified as a Very Narrow Spot (VNSP) with 11° horizontal beam spread.

The halogen Q4559X costs around $50USD retail. The incandescent version costs less but has a shorter lifespan.

Taxi Light Bulb

The Boeing 757 and 767 use the GE 4554 lamp for taxi lights. The 4554 is a PAR 46, 28 volt, 450 watt lamp that provides 90,000 candlepower. It has a wide 50° horizontal beam spread.

Wing Inspection Lights

Wing inspection lights are mounted on the side of the aircraft fuselage, just forward of the wing root. They are aimed rearward to illuminate the leading edge and top of the wing. Their primary function is to help the crew and maintenance personnel inspect the wings for ice, snow, or damage. The lights are also effective for collision avoidance.

Wing inspection lights - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy

Collision Avoidance:  Flashy and Colorful!

There are a lot of airplanes in the sky; especially near busy airports. It’s important for pilots to see other aircraft in the sky and on the ground. Anti-collision lights help make airplanes easy to spot, even several miles away.

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Colorful Position Lights

All aircraft have red and green lights on the wingtips. Red  is always on the left wing, green  on the right. White position lights are mounted on wingtips and/or the tail and face aft.

767 red and green position lights - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
Position lights on two Boeing 767 wing tips.

Position lights are often called “navigation” or “nav” lights, although they have nothing to do with navigation.

Red and green position lights were first used on ships in the 1800’s. Collisions were far too common in busy shipping lanes, so the industry began experimenting with position lights. The lights reduced nautical collisions so well, that they were eventually adopted for aircraft use.

Pilots must use position lights from sunset to sunrise. Airlines usually require crews to use them all the time.

Position Lights on Spacecraft ??

Position lights are standard on water vessels and aircraft. What about spacecraft?

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft and the reusable SpaceX Dragon both have position lights. The lights enable International Space Station personnel to quickly confirm vehicle alignment during approach and docking.

SpaceX Dragon position lights - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
SpaceX Dragon navigation lights. Photo: NASA/Thomas Pesquet. Click for larger image.

No Lights for the Space Shuttle

The Space Shuttle had no position lights, anti-collision, or landing lights. Engineers were careful to save every ounce of weight possible. The Shuttle had a FAA waiver to fly without position lights. It operated in airspace that was cleared of traffic. For the orbiter’s 26 night landings, bright floodlights illuminated the runways to compensate for the lack of landing lights.

When pilots see another aircraft’s white position lights, they know the aircraft is flying away from them. Seeing red and green lights indicates the aircraft is approaching. The lights help pilots, tower, ground controllers, and ground support personnel determine aircraft position and direction – thus the name “position lights.” 🙂

Position Lights - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy

Problems with Red and Green Lights

Red and green are probably not the best colors to use in aviation (or automobile traffic lights). Red-green color blindness is the most common form of color vision deficiency. 8% of all men and 0.5% of all women suffer from some form of it.

One of several Ishihara test plates for diagnosing color blindness.

Red-green color blindness may disqualify a person from becoming a pilot. Waivers are available and depend on the type and severity of the problem. If you want to fly and think you have a color vision deficiency, check with an aviation medical examiner. The examiner can determine if you can fly.


Anti-Collision Lights: Red

Nothing attracts attention better than a super bright, red flashing light.

Red anti-collision lights are located on the top and bottom of aircraft so a light can be seen from any angle.

Watch aircraft as they arrive and depart airport gates. Crews turn on the red flashing lights just before aircraft movement and engine start. The crew turns off the lights after they shut down the engines and set the parking brake.

red, flashing anti-collision light on belly of a 767
A red anti-collision light on the ground means danger! Xenon arc lamp on a Boeing 767.

Red anti-collision lights are also turned on by maintenance personnel when testing hazardous components like landing gear doors or flaps.

Walking near an operating jet engine or turboprop is more dangerous than juggling chain saws. When ground personnel see the red lights flashing, they know the area is unsafe.

Red Anticollision slights are usually mounted on the top and bottom of the aircraft

Red anti-collision lights are often called “rotating beacons.” Years ago, the lights used a motorized rotating reflector to create the flashing effect. Xenon arc lamps (like a camera flash) replaced the rotating reflectors a few decades ago. Anti-collision lights on new aircraft like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 use super bright LEDs to create the required burst of red light. You can tell when an aircraft has the new LED anti-collision lights: the lights stay on longer than the old xenon flash bulbs. It looks more like ON/OFF than a flash; they’re easy to spot.

Anti-Collision Lights: White

Installed on the wingtips are blinding white, flashing anti-collision lights. They are often called “strobes” and can be seen for miles. It’s easy to spot the white flashing lights on airplanes flying high overhead at night.

silhouette of an aircraft inflight with white wingtip lights flashing
Aircraft at 40,000 feet are easily seen from the ground thanks to anti-collision lights. In-flight, pilots can see the lights 20 miles away.

White anti-collision lights are too bright to be used while taxiing or waiting in line at a runway. They are distracting (and blinding) to other pilots. Crews turn the lights on just before takeoff, and off immediately after landing.

Some Airbus aircraft have an automatic setting for anti-collision lights that uses a “weight-on-wheels” switch.  When the wheels leave the runway, the lights turn on. When the aircraft lands, the lights turn off.

Like their flashing red counterparts, white anti-collision lights have historically used xenon lamps. Newer aircraft use LED systems.

Landing Lights as Anti-Collision Lights

Pulsing landing lights were introduced several years ago to enhance aircraft visibility. The system alternately pulses the left and right landing lights to create an attention-getting display that is effective both day and night.

Silhouette of a 737 nose with left and right landing lights alternating off and on.
Alternating Landing Light System

Southwest, Alaska, Qantas, and Horizon airlines operate aircraft with the Precise Flight Pulselite® system. Similar systems are found at other airlines and on many general aviation aircraft, including helicopters. Southwest refers to the lights as the Alternating Landing Light System (ALLS).

3-position switch for pulsing landing lights - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
Pulsing landing lights use a 3-position switch: OFF, PULSE, and ON. Click for larger image.

A pilot operates pulsing landing lights with a three position switch. The lights are off during cruise. When descending, the lights are switched to PULSE to increase aircraft visibility in congested airspace. The pilot positions the switch to ON a few hundred feet before touchdown so all lights are on, at full brightness for landing.

Benefits of Pulsing Lights (according to Precise Flight):

  • Increases aircraft visibility
  • Reduces ground collisions
  • Reduces possibility of bird strikes
  • Increases life of incandescent bulbs (the system modulates bulbs, allowing filaments to run at lower temperatures)


Pulsing lights can be distracting to pilots when flying in the clouds. It would be like driving a car in dense fog with your headlights flashing back and forth. Crews typically use the ON setting when descending through clouds, then switch to PULSE when clear of clouds.

To see a pulsing landing light system in action, here’s the promo from Precise Flight:

Thank you to Capt. Herb Jackson Jr. for providing information and insight about pulsing landing lights. Follow Herb on Twitter!

Logo Lights

Logo lights are usually mounted on the horizontal stabilizer and light up the vertical fin. Older aircraft, like the DC-8, DC-9, and MD-80/90 variants have logo lights mounted on the wingtips. Airlines love to show off their logos at night – that’s exactly what logo lights are for.

Logo lights - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy

Logo lights are not required, but commonly used for the advertising benefits. The lights are also effective for collision avoidance.  They make it easy for pilots to spot aircraft on the ground and in flight. Logo lights also help ground controllers identify aircraft on taxiways.

Hawaiian Airlines Logo Light - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
Hawaiian Airlines using logo lights to show off their beautiful vertical stabilizer at Tokyo-Narita International.
MD-90 Wing Inspection and Logo Lights -Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
MD-90 wingtip mounted logo light. Wing inspection lights illuminate the wing.

Light Controls

Eleven switches control millions of candlepower on a Boeing 767. The external lighting controls are on the overhead panel within easy reach of either pilot. The taxi and runway turnoff lights are on the left. Three big toggle switches on the bottom control the landing lights. The row of four push switches control position, anti-collision and wing inspection lights. Logo light control is on the right.

767 exterior lighting controls - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
Exterior lighting controls for a Boeing 767-300. Click for larger.

Exterior Lighting Management

Each phase of flight has its own lighting requirements. Airlines provide pilots with specific guidance for lighting management. The following is general information.

Ground Operations and Taxi

  • Position lights are on anytime an aircraft has electric power available.
  • Logo lights are switched on during preflight inspection.
  • Aircraft maintenance: Technicians will turn on red anti-collision lights when working with hazardous components (gear doors, flaps).
  • Push back and engine start: Red anti-collision lights are turned on just before push-back from the gate and engine start. They are turned off after engines are shut down at the gate.
  • Taxi and runway turn-off lights are used at the captain’s discretion while taxiing. Pro tip: pilots will turn off taxi lights when pointed toward another aircraft cockpit to avoid blinding the crew.

Runway Operations

  • White anti-collision lights are turned on when cleared onto a runway, turned off when exiting a runway.
  • Taxi lights and wing inspection lights are turned on when cleared onto the runway.
  • Landing lights are turned on when cleared for takeoff, turned off when exiting runway.
  • During takeoff and landing every exterior light on the aircraft is used to maximize aircraft visibility.
Landing lights on for landing - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
Landing lights are used (day & night) when near airports. © Kuhnmi 


  • During initial climb: landing, taxi, wing inspection, and logo lights are on until above 18,000 feet to maximize visibility in busy airspace. They are turned off above 18,000.
  • Only red and white anti-collision lights are used during cruise.
  • If a crew spots an aircraft flying toward them, they will sometimes flash the landing lights to say “Hello, we see you!”
  • During descent: Landing, wing inspection, and logo lights are turned on below 18,000 feet to maximize visibility in busy airspace.
  • Technique: Pilots often form a habit of leaving taxi lights turned off until the tower clears them to land. When the crew receives landing clearance, the captain will turn the taxi lights on. If things get busy, a taxi light switch that’s off reminds the crew they need a landing clearance.
landing lights streaks at night - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
30 second exposure of a jet on final approach. White dots are the white anti-collision lights flashing. Red dots are the red anti-collision light flashing. © Clint Budd

LED Lights Are Now on Airliners!

LED bulbs - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy

As LED technology advances, the aviation industry is quickly changing its light bulbs. Airports all over the world are changing runway and taxiway lights to LED.

New, super bright LEDs are now being installed on airplanes. The lights appear brighter than the old incandescent bulbs. The color of the LED taxi and landing lights is a little “cooler” or whiter than the yellowish color of incandescent bulbs. They 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.

767 LED landing and taxi light bulbs - Savvy Passenger Guide to Airplane Lights- AeroSavvy
LED landing and taxi lights being tested on a Boeing 767-300F. Click for larger image.

Airports Have Pretty Lights, Too!

Be sure to read the companion article: Savvy Passenger Guide to Airport Lights.
Everything you ever wanted to know about colorful airport lights!

Savvy Passenger Guide to Airport Lights - AeroSavvy


  1. 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?

    • 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:

      Good luck with your career change!

  2. 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


    • 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:

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

      • 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.

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

    • 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!

    • 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!

  4. 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

  5. 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?

  6. 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!!!

    • 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!

  7. 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?


    • 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.

      I hope that answers your question!

      Thanks for reading,

  8. 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?

    • 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!

  9. 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?

    • 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!

      • 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.

        • 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!

  10. 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

  11. 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

  12. 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

    • 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!

  13. 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?

    • 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!

  14. 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)

    • 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!

  15. 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.

    • Hi Christine,

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

      Thanks for reading!

      • 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.

  16. 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?


    • 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!

      • 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!

        • 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!


      • 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.

  17. 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.

    • 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!

  18. 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!!


    • 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!

  19. 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.

    • 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!

      • And switching it on? Under 10.000 feet I believe. When airplanes pass my location when they are on approach and descend under 10.000, I see they switch the lights (I guess landing lights) on, right?

        • Pilots trained in the US typically turn on most of the exterior lights when descending below 18,000. When cleared to land we turn on any remaining landing lights. I usually save my nose wheel landing lights for the landing clearance.

  20. 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)

    • 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,

  21. 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?

    • 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!

  22. 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!

    • 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!

    • My brother and I just saw something with three solid red lights and a green flashing light that was much much brighter than the red in fact the red were hard to make out but the green was very bright as it was coming towards us but after it passed the green was then orange but still flashing.

  23. Last night around 10pm my wife and I observed an aircraft that was odd in two respects – it made no noise and its light did not blink. We also saw a normal airplane a couple minutes later, which was audible and noticeably blinking although it seemed much higher than the first. Conditions were clear and calm (SE Washington/NE Oregon). Both planes moved steadily and smoothly, the first west to east across the sky to the south, the second north to south. The second plane took a few minutes to cross our point of view, the first took a minute or less.

    I only mention the second plane because we heard it and could see its lights blink. The first plane seemed to have a red light on its left side but my wife did not notice that. The tail light was white and globular, the red light, if there was one, was a thin wand. The second plane was flying at 10,000 fleet minimum. The first might have been as low as 2,000 feet.

    Is there any protocol that the first plane might have been following? I do not believe in paranormal stuff.

    • Hi Robert,

      Could you actually see the mystery aircraft or did you just see a light? When you mention that the sky was clear and the plane had one solid light, the first thing I thought of was a satellite. Some satellites, like the ISS, Hubble, and a few communications satellites, can be very bright. You mentioned it was around 10pm. That puts the sun just below the horizon which is the perfect position to light up satellites overflying your location. Any chance it could be a satellite?

      Here’s an article I wrote about satellite spotting. It has an animation that simulates what a satellite looks like moving across the sky:

      Thanks for reading!

  24. Saw a plane a week or so ago around 8pm headed toward me at approximately 10,000′. I got my binoculars on it at around 30 degrees and followed it to zenith and on to around 30 degrees when I stopped looking and started thinking. It had two blinking white and very bright strobe lights on the end of each wing tip and likewise on the tail. All flashed together twice and there was total darkness for 3 seconds before the next 2 very quick and bright flashes. Considering the conditions, I should have easily been able to see any and all colored lights if they were present. Don’t you think? The distance between the lights leads me to think it was a big, not small, plane and the little bit of noise makes me think it was a prop plane. Was someone breaking the law? What is the rule ( if any ) if your navigation lights fail in flight? First time responder to anything-Terry. Thank you for your efforts.

    • Hi Terry,

      Position lights (the red and green wingtip lights) are not nearly as bright as the white flashing anti-collision lights. It’s very likely you just couldn’t see them at that distance. Even with binoculars it would be difficult. If there was a thin, unnoticeable cloud layer, it might have further obscured the lights. Position lights should be on all the time in flight. If a problem occurs with the lights during flight (faulty switch, burned out bulbs, etc) it will be found during the next pre-flight inspection and repaired before the next flight. No laws broken.

      Thanks for reading!

  25. Another thing I’ve noticed in landing traffic. I live near where inbound traffic intercepts the ILS for a nearby airport. Commonly, large aircraft (757s/767s around here) on approach will have, seemingly, only a couple of landing lights on. Then, when they start the final approach, they light up everything. Makes a fairly dramatic (and blinding, if you’re looking that way when it all comes on) difference.

    As for the red/green thing, that was explained by the ex-Navy captain above, but a way it was explained to me by a yachtsman was simply that oncoming boats pass red-to-red or green-to-green (the latter being the normal and proper way). That way they know they’re clear of each other. The other meanings (port, starboard, historical reasons) are also there.

    • Hi Mike,

      Pilots generally fly the approach with most of the aircraft lights illuminated. When they receive landing clearance, they turn on the remaining lights. It’s a habit pattern designed to remind us if we’ve received landing clearance in a very dynamic environment.

      Thanks for reading!

    • Hey Ken,

      I’m a retired 39 year airline employee. I know what airplanes look like. Last night 12/5/2020, I opened the back door to see a red glowing light approaching my location. As it got closer I could see the anti collision lights (red rotating) and blinking lights wing tip (white) and the glowing wingtip red and green, I could hear the engines. He was flying low, apparently on approach to CVG about 10 pm, flying east. Unusual approach heading. The landing lights (wing root) were on, but they were as red as can be, not white like every other commercial aircraft in the air.

      What do you think about that???


  26. I saw an airplane flying at night with 4 white lights in a square – it was almost directly above me. one light on each wingtip and one on tail and nose (from the bottom of course) I estimate the plane was halfway to maximum other planes fly at (37K feet ?) I think plane flying east. I have seen many planes but never with these 4 lights.

    I do not recollect any red or green or flashing lights – but not sure about this.

    Any ideas ?

    I live in Martinez, California.

      • I suppose it could be – the plane was flying slowly and in a very straight line – there were a couple of other planes flying and they all looked similar. I have not seen any drones around her yet. I will keep an eye out in case this ever comes back again.


        • Hi Ivo,

          The ISS Tracker you suggested is great tool. It is unlikely that the vehicle Bob described was the ISS. Even the largest satellites appear as a solitary dot due to their distance.

        • Hello

          Regarding the airplane with 4 white lights underneath it – I saw another one Friday night.
          I was not able to get a photo sadly.

          I saw it at Coyote Point Harbour which is just south of SFO.
          It was traveling south turned a bit towards east.
          I think it was travelling on a reciprocal course to the planes landing at SFO and twards the west of the incoming flight paths.

          Guessing, I would say it was three times as high as the planes coming in over the San Mateo bridge….maybe more but certainly not at cruising altitude.

          I judge the plane to be a large one – not a small plane or a drone. It travelled a normal speed.
          Monday March 16, 2020. at dusk so perhaps 6:30 PM.

          To repeat – it had four bright lights on its bottom – on nose, tail and wingtips. None blinking.
          None of the planes landing had these 4 white lights.

  27. I live west of Ohare airport, last week after sunset I was outside and noticed several aircraft overhead{there are lots around as you could guess!] but I saw one flying south to north with only a green blinking light on, and it was moving fast, much faster than the regular airplanes I see, any ideas?

  28. Dear sir,
    We saw 5 aircraft in the sky traveling around in an area about 3 square miles. They crossed each other,they followed each other for an hour or so with one or two leaving the area only to return 30 mins or so later. My question is…Why did each craft have a strobing light that blinked a different number of blinks than the rest. One craft blinked once. Another blinked twice. One blinked 3 times. Another blinked 4 times and yet another blinked 5 times. What am I seeing?

  29. Great job! So many poorly written and researched posts about this topic. You really nailed it! Right down to the taxi lights for landing clearance. Happy landings.

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