How Runway Lights Work

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  • Anyone flying into an airport at night sees a multitude of lights in many different colors. Most people understand that the lights help pilots and airport workers to visualize the airport layout, but how do they all work together, and what do the different colors mean?

Airfield Lighting

  • Airfield lighting systems aren't the same everywhere. A large commercial airport has many different lighting systems to indicate the airport layout and to help guide pilots on approach. A small airfield may have simple lighting to outline the edges, and some very small private airfields have no night lighting at all. However, where lighting is available, the use of that lighting and the colors used are consistent.

Types of Runway Lighting

  • Runway edge lights are raised white lights that outline each side of a runway for its full length. On a large commercial airfield, the color may change to yellow on the last 2000 feet of the runway.

    Runway centerline lights are white lights embedded into the runway centerline at large airports. For the last 3,000 feet of runway, the lights alternate between white and red for 2,000 feet and just red for the final 1,000 feet.

    Runway end identifier lights are flashing white lights, one on each side of the runway threshold, to give positive indication of the approach end of a runway.

    Runway touchdown zone lights are also used at large airports. These are white light bars embedded into the runway on either side of the centerline. They extend from 100 feet past the runway threshold to either 3,000 feet or to the midpoint of the runway, whichever is less.

    Taxiway centerline lead-off and lead-on lights are alternating green and yellow lights leading from the runway centerline to the taxiway. These lights offer visual direction to pilots leaving or entering the runway.

    Land and hold short lights are sometimes used on airfields with runways that intersect. Smaller aircraft that are capable of landing and stopping before the intersection, otherwise known as "holding short," may be given permission to do so. A line of flashing white lights indicates the hold short line.

Types of Taxiway Lighting

  • Taxiway edge lights are raised blue lights that outline each side of a taxiway.

    Taxiway centerline lights are green lights embedded into the taxiway centerline. These lights also extend from the taxiway onto the aircraft maneuvering area, or apron, along designated aircraft movement lines.

    Clearance bar lights are three embedded yellow lights that indicate a designated holding point on a taxiway.

    Stop bar lights are a row of embedded red lights at the holding point immediately before a runway. These lights are operated from the control tower, and are turned off when clearance is given to the aircraft to proceed onto the runway.

Other Airport Lighting Systems

  • Approach light systems are configurations of lights that extend backwards from the runway threshold for 1,500 or 3,000 feet. They help the pilot make the transition from an instrument landing to a visual approach. Often, a sequenced light, nicknamed the rabbit, will appear to a pilot to be traveling along the pathway toward the runway centerline.

    Visual glideslope indicator lights entail two different lighting systems that help pilots visually control their approach path. These are called the Visual Approach Slope Indicator, or VASI, and Precision Approach Path Indicator, or PAPI. Both of these systems are made up of sets of white and red lights arranged such that if the pilot is above the flight path, only white lights display; if below the flight path, only red lights display; if on the correct flight path, the lights display a mix of red and white.

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