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Training and Safety Tip: Light ’em up

Exterior aircraft lights serve several purposes, but the bottom line is that, in both day and night conditions, lights increase safety and reduce the chance of collisions.

AOPA Air Safety Institute
Photo by Mike Fizer.

The types of exterior lights that are common on most aircraft are position lights, anticollision lights, and landing/taxiway lights. They help pilots see other aircraft in the air and on the ground and determine their position relative to those aircraft; illuminate ground surfaces such as taxiways and runways; and can even indicate when an aircraft is running.

Position lights are located on the wingtips. The light on the right wingtip is green and the one on the left wingtip is red. This makes it possible to determine, even from a distance, whether another airplane is flying toward you, away from you, or across your view from one side to another. If, for example, you can see both position lights of an aircraft, with the green light on your left and the red on your right, that airplane is flying toward you.

Anticollision lights are the blinking red and/or white lights commonly found on the top and bottom of the airplane and on the wingtips (the strobes). These are required for night flights yet also are a helpful safety tool in daylight.

The rotating beacon light found on the top of the aircraft’s tail is turned on as part of the engine start checklist. The beacon, along with the pilot’s verbal “clear” warning, alerts anyone nearby that the engine is running, or soon will be.

Landing lights are turned on during descent to an airport and kept on throughout the landing. Be aware that, while this increases visibility, there are illusions associated with having the landing light on during descent. It makes the lighted area appear higher than the non-lighted area, which could potentially lead to a higher-than-normal approach and ultimately a hard landing.

Pilots have some discretion (aside from night flying requirements) about when to use lighting, which can cause differences of opinion. Some pilots prefer to turn off exterior lights when not required, to preserve the life of the bulbs. Others prefer to leave all exterior lights on—even the landing light—throughout each of their flights regardless of conditions to make their aircraft more visible to other pilots. Discuss the pros and cons with your flight instructor—who may recommend leaving the lights on, especially when maneuvering in the practice area.

ASI Staff
Kathleen Vasconcelos
Kathleen Vasconcelos is an instrument-rated flight instructor and a commercial pilot with multiengine and instrument ratings. She lives in New Hampshire.
Topics: Training and Safety, Flight Instructor, Aircraft Systems
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