Ask the pilot: What’s the purpose of the different aircraft lights?

In the dark especially, the dizzying array of lights on an airplane can seem rather confusing. One of our readers wonders what they all do, so we asked a professional to put our minds at rest.


Is there a specific purpose for the different lights on aircraft? Some are colored and others blink. What are their different purposes? And do all airplanes have the same set of lights?


Hello Lovisa!

Niclas Almqvist

Age: 48
Career: Joined SAS in 1997. Flew the Fokker F-28 for two years, then the Boeing 737. Captain on the Canadair CRJ-200 at Cimber Air from 2007 to 2011. Has a background in business aviation from Hästens Sängar AB. Captain on the Boeing 737 since 2016.
Home base: ARN
Flies: Boeing 737
Flight hours: 13,700

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Good question! Yes, indeed, there is a specific purpose for every light.

On the Boeing 737, similar to other aircraft types, we have position lights (also called navigation lights). They have to be on when it is dark. If you’re sitting in the airplane facing forward, the light on the left wing is red and the one on the right wing is green. These wingtip lights are visible from the front and from the sides of the aircraft. Then you have a white position light visible from behind and somewhat from the side. The reason for the position lights is that if you see an airplane in the dark, whether it’s on the ground or airborne, you can determine which direction it’s moving in.

We also have two blinking red anti-collision lights, or beacon lights – one on top of the fuselage and one beneath. Before we start the engines, we switch these on. This is to advise the ground staff that we’ll soon be starting the engines. After parking, when the engines are shut off, we turn off the anti-collision lights, which is a signal to the ground staff that they can safely approach the aircraft.

The final light is a pretty strong, white, flashing strobe. This is switched on just before entering the runway for takeoff and it remains on throughout the entire flight. After landing and when leaving the runway, we turn the strobe light off.

Small aircraft also have position and anti-collision lights. They might not have the white flashing strobe light though.

Flight Captain Niclas Almqvist

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