Airplanes have several exterior lights, some with random flashing while others produce solid light. And while small planes might have fewer lights than larger aircraft, some are standard across all sizes. We will compare anti-collision lights vs. position lights to explain the purpose of these safety lamps when flying. Take a look!
Purpose of an Aircraft’s External Lights
The light types fitted on a plane generally depend on the aircraft type. But these lights fall into the following primary categories.
- Illuminate areas where the pilot should see
- Provide illumination for specific purposes
- Enhance aircraft visibility
An airplane with all its lights on before takeoff
Most aircraft lights are multipurpose. For instance, landing lights illuminate the runway and terrain for the pilots during landing and takeoff. Also, they make the plane more visible.
But all aircraft must have dedicated visibility lights for safety purposes. And within this category, there are anti-collision and navigation lights.
What are Anti-Collision Lights?
As the name suggests, the anti-collision light system acts as a collision-avoidance measure by warning other pilots of the plane’s presence. It consists of the following types.
Beacon (Red) Anti-Collision Lighting
Beacon lights are red flashing lights that alert others either the:
- Aircraft engines are running
- Plane is moving
So they turn on as soon as the pilots commence the start engine sequence and get turned off when the engine shuts.
Also known as rotating beacon lights, the red units usually sit at the top of the rudder on small planes. But on larger airplanes, they are on the bottom of the fuselage. In either case, the red light is visible all-around the aircraft (360°).
A plane is flying at night with its red beacon light under the fuselage. Note the green navigation light on the right wing.
Older aircraft used xenon beacon lights, but modern Boeing and Airbus planes feature red LED beacons. And it is not a matter of efficiency but brightness. The flashing LED is brighter and beams outwards further than xenon lights, making the aircraft more visible.
Anti-Collision Lights vs. Position Lights: Strobe (White) Anti-Collision Lighting
Unlike red beacons, the strobe anti-collision light system uses white lights. These units sit on the furthest ends of the wings at the tip. So each plane has two strobe lights and a single beacon light.
And they flash like their beacon counterparts but provide 180° lighting on either side, highlighting the width of the aircraft.
An airplane is taking off. Note the white strobe lights on the wing tips
Pilots must use the white strobe lights when crossing active runways and during flight. But they are too bright for ground use, especially at night in a busy airport.
Since brightness is crucial for this lighting, most modern aircraft use LEDs.
What Are Position Lights?
Also known as aircraft navigation lights, position lights are mandatory for all planes flying at night. They consist of a red light mounted on the left wingtip and a green light on the right wingtip. These lights shine continuously at a 110° angle to the left and right side of the plane, respectively.
A red position light and white strobe light on a plane’s left wing
A third aircraft position light sits at the airplane’s tail with a 140° beam angle. Some planes have additional white nav lights on the wingtips facing backward.
The extra navigation light facing backward on the wingtip
With this arrangement, another pilot or observer can determine the flying direction of other airplanes at night.
For instance, the plane is flying toward you if you see a green light on the left and a red light on the right. And the plane is moving away from you (in the same direction) if you see a white light ahead. You might notice the red and green on the left and right, respectively.
A green navigation light on a jet’s right wing
If you spot a single red nav light, an airplane will move across your field of view from right to left. And when the red light disappears, and you see its white light, the plane is out of your way and poses no collision risk.
But if the light is green, a plane will move across the windscreen from left to right. Once the green light disappears and you spot the white light, it is out of your way.
Anti-Collision Lights vs. Position Lights: Origin of Navigation Lights
Ships were the primary means of transport back in the day before the invention of flight. Collisions became too frequent between these water vessels, especially at night. So ship operators came up with the nav-light system consisting of red, green, and white lights. They positioned them in certain areas around the ship.
Red and green navigation lights on a sailboat
Aircrafts adopted this system after their invention and advancement for long-distance flights with night operations. Although mandatory only when flying aircraft at night, pilots use them in day conditions to enhance visibility.
Other Aircraft Lighting Systems
- Taxi lights
- Landing lights
- Wing inspection lights
- Runway turnoff lights
- Logo lights
- Formation lights (for military aircraft)
- Searchlights (for law enforcement, search & rescue, and military airplanes)
An aircraft just before landing with its white strobe lights on
In conclusion, anti-collision and position lights on an aircraft help pilots keep their airplanes visible if flying at night or parking/moving in a night flight operations area in a traffic-congested airport. And as you can see, they have specific placement and color codes.
Modern planes use LED visibility lights because they are brighter, making the aircraft easy to spot.
So LEDs end up making flying safer if you think about it. And if you have any questions about LED lights, contact us, and we will respond ASAP.