As day turns to night, an airport’s maze of painted markings and symbols transforms into a vast arrangement of backlit signs and colorful lights, each with their own distinct meaning. We thought we’d help you understand the night-time wayfinding that pilots use at airports around the globe.
Taxiways – the “roadway system” that pilots use to get to the runways, are always bordered by blue lighting. Airports equipped with instrumentation to operate during dense fog also have green centerline lighting on their taxiways. Yellow lights give pilots a warning that there is an intersection, or a stopping point before they enter the runway.
Runway markings can be some of the most complex to the untrained eye, but their lights are the most recognizable in all of aviation. All runways have white lights along their edges, with green lights visible on the active end of the runway (since all arriving and departing flights travel the same direction on a runway) and red lights visible from the opposing end. As yet another visual aid to pilots, the last 2,000 feet of runway lights alternate white and yellow lights. Likewise, the last 2,000 feet of centerline lights alternate red and white, and the last 1,000 feet are all red.
One of the most impressive lighting arrays can be found in the approach lighting systems, which serve as a visual extension of the runway for pilots and can extend as far as 2,400 feet from the runway. When using an instrument approach (where the pilots rely on instrumentation rather than the naked eye), pilots must see a visual reference of the runway before descending to a certain altitude in order to continue the landing. During low visibility landings, pilots will see the approach lights first, thereby allowing them to continue the landing.
The next time you’re flying at night, take a closer look at the many different lights you see. Whether you know their meanings or are a casual observer, a good view of an airport’s lighting will never disappoint.