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Airplane Lights and What They Mean




In this article we’re going to cover exactly what airplane lights mean.

An important part of a pilot’s job is flipping switches. 

Not only does flipping switches look cool, but flipping the right switch at the right time is one thing that separates the good pilots from the great ones. Some of those switches control lights, and airplanes have a lot of lights. 

So here’s a closer look at which light switches to turn flip on and when to do it. 

In all seriousness, though, airplane lights are a more complicated topic than you might think. 

Understanding the intricacies is important to being a conscientious and safe pilot. 

And it’s how seriously you take these little things—how well you know the recommended procedures and best practices—that will help you pass checkrides and nail future job interviews. 

This article is part of our ongoing series on airplane flying basics. We cover things like flaps, ailerons, flying in the rain and even what to include in your flight bag.

Airplane lights and their meaning

Anti-Collision Lights

The purpose of anti-collision lights is to make the aircraft more visible, day or night. 

The original anti-collision light was the rotating red beacon, usually mounted on the top of the tail or the belly. 

Today, white strobe lights have replaced most beacons. These are even more visible, but they come with a few disadvantages. On the ground, strobes can be blinding to other pilots, especially when taxiing after dark, when they can ruin a pilot’s night vision. 

They can also reflect in clouds, producing an all-around strobe effect in the cockpit that can be disorienting. 

The exact procedure for using the anti-collision lights on your aircraft requires some forethought and consideration. It depends on how your plane is equipped. 

If you have a rotating beacon, it usually comes on before engine start and remains on until shutdown. 

On the ground, it serves as a good visual indicator that the engines are running (or are about to.) This is a rule for large commercial aircraft with dangerous prop or jet blasts, but it is just as applicable to small aircraft with their dangerous propellers. 

Airplane lights on

Strobes require more care, given the problems listed above. 

You probably don’t want them flashing when in close quarters to other pilots, like in runup areas. If your plane has both strobes and a beacon, you might use the beacon all the time and strobes only when cleared onto the runway.

But if you have only strobes, you will turn them on and off more as the situation warrants.

Navigation or Position Lights

The position lights of the aircraft, also called navigation or nav lights, are used by other aircraft to determine your position and direction relative to them. 

At night, these lights quickly identify collision risks and who has the right of way.

The colors and positions are standardized, and these standards have been around forever. In fact, they come from nautical (admiralty) laws of the sea—ships have the same color lights for the same purpose.

On your plane, each wingtip has a light that faces forward and laterally from your position. The left wing light is red; the right is green. The tail has a white light visible from behind you. These viewing angles are slightly simplified; the lights have very specific angles. 

With the specific viewing ranges in mind, you can immediately know which direction a plane is pointed—relative to your position—based on what color lights you can see.

See a white light? The plane is flying directly away from you.

See a red and a green light? The plane is flying directly toward you. Uh-oh!

See a red light? The plane is crossing from your right to left, so it has the right-of-way.

See a green light? The plane is crossing from your left to right, so you have the right of way.

The Airplane Flying Handbook’s chapter on Night Operations covers these lights. 

Airplane landing at night

Landing and Taxi Lights

Landing and taxi lights (many small planes just have one light that does both) are bright white forward-facing lights analogous to car headlights. 

Landing lights are aimed higher to help the pilot illuminate the touchdown zone while on short final. Taxi lights are aimed a little lower to illuminate taxiways without blinding other pilots. 

Basically, landing lights are your high beams, and taxi lights are your low beams.

Landing lights are probably the most visible things a plane has, as they can be seen from many miles away. One reason you switch them on anywhere near airports or while doing maneuvers is that they’re very effective anti-collision lights. 

You might notice that some planes have twin landing lights that strobe on and off in sync. Not only does this look super cool, but it is a very effective anti-collision light system.

Operation Lights On

Many pilots have traditionally operated their lights only as needed: landing lights when landing at night, position lights only from dusk til dawn, and so forth. But lights play an important role in collision avoidance and communicating a pilot’s intent. 

Operation Lights On is the name of an FAA initiative to educate pilots and encourage them to use their lights more. 

Information about Operation Lights On is in the Aeronautical Information Manual, Chapter 4-3-32 Airport Operations, Aircraft Use of Lights.  

Pilots are encouraged to turn their landing lights on, day or night:

  • For takeoff
  • Anytime below 10,000 feet MSL, especially when within 10 miles of an airport
  • In conditions of reduced visibility
  • Around flocks of birds
Airplane lights

 The AIM explains several other times and best practices for using airplane lights.

  • Turn on navigation, position, logo, and anti-collision lights when taxiing.
  • Illuminate all exterior lights when crossing any runway
  • Turn all external lights on when cleared to “line up and wait,” but do not put on the landing light until takeoff clearance is received.

Light Requirements: What Must You Have and What Must Work

The question will undoubtedly arise in every pilot’s career when they find a light bulb burned out. Can they fly? What is required equipment, and what can be deferred? 

As is always the case with inoperative equipment, the answer lies in FAR Part 91.205. Here’s what the regs say about lights for different types of flight.

Day VFR:

  • An approved aviation red or aviation white anticollision light system

Night VFR:

  • Approved position lights
  • An approved aviation red or aviation white anticollision light system on all U.S.-registered civil aircraft. 
  • If the aircraft is operated for hire, one electric landing light.
  • Plus, an adequate source of electrical energy for all installed electrical and radio equipment and one spare set of fuses (or three spare fuses of each kind required)
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