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Lights, Camera, Action!

Ever since the second aircraft started flying, a primary concern among pilots has been the ability to see and avoid the other aircraft.Ever since the second aircraft started flying, a primary concern among pilots has been the ability to see and avoid the other aircraft. The problem is that you cannot avoid what you cannot see...

The Bright Approach
There are several laws concerning the use of aircraft lights but beyond that there are some 'good operating practices' and even some common courtesies involved.


The FARs require that aircraft position lights be turned between sunset and sunset for any ground or flight movement. Position lights consist of a green light on the right wing, a red light on the left, and a white light on the tail. These lights have constant illumination and do not flash.

In addition, an aircraft equipped with anti-collision lights must have those lights illuminated at all times -- night and day. Anti-collision lights are not a constant illumination, but rather they rotate or flash. These lights are either red or white. Small aircraft often have a rotating beacon that serves as the anti-collision light. Most beacons don't actually rotate, but turn off and on to give the impression that they are turning. Some aircraft have strobe lights that serve as their anti-collision system.

UNCOMMON SENSE: The FAA has a voluntary pilot safety program called Operation – Lights On that is in place to enhance the ability for pilots to see each other. The program calls for pilots to turn on landing and taxi lights:

  1. Just prior to the takeoff roll -- night and day.
  2. Keep those lights on within 10 miles of any airport and below 10,000 feet.

SAFETY: Pilots should turn on anti-collision lights before engine start. This signals other pilots and line personnel that you will have a propeller in motion, soon. Large aircraft generally follow the same guideline. When large aircraft sit with lights on, other pilots will know that those large engines are moving air and to stay clear.

COURTESY: At night, aircraft taxing to the end of the runway and aircraft on final approach will often be facing each other. A pilot on final does not need their night vision reduced, so remember to turn off your white taxi lights and strobes when facing a landing aircraft. White light will instantly destroy the eye's night adaptation making a landing harder or hazardous for the pilot.

CAUTION: Sometimes, having certain lights on can be a problem. The anti-collision lights are supposed to remain on during flight, but the regulations do give pilots some discretion for practical considerations. Example: Strobe lights left on in the clouds at night can be very distracting, and damage night vision -- so be ready to switch off strobes when operating IFR.

BOTTOM LINE: The primary responsibility of a pilot is to fly the aircraft and to see and avoid other aircraft. Air traffic controllers can lend a hand when aircraft have been positively radar identified. To help get identified, operate your transponder at all times in flight. The ATC radar and the airplane's transponder together act like a camera to track the aircraft's position -- and that helps ATC issue traffic alerts. So, next time you prepare to takeoff remember the phrase: 'Lights, Camera, Action!' and say it as you turn on your lights, turn on your camera (transponder), and be ready for action.

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About This Author:
Paul A. Craig is a Gold Seal Multiengine and Instrument Flight Instructor. He currently holds a total of 11 Flight Certificates including his ATP. Craig is a previous winner of the North Carolina and Tennessee Flight Instructor of the Year award, the NCVT Outstanding Teacher award and has served as the regional representative of the National Air and Space Museum. Craig is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor and the author of eight books, including Pilot In Command, The Killing Zone: How and Why Pilots Die, and Controlling Pilot Error: Situational Awareness (all from McGraw Hill).
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