Society: How Airplane Pilots See At Night Without Landing Lights


Almost every aircraft has “front lights.” On general aviation aircraft they are typically called “landing lights” — there’s a hint in that name. Airliner’s have them also, but I’m not certain if they are also called landing lights. Airliners typically turn them on below 10,000 feet and most general aviation aircraft turn them on whenever they are in flight.


When in normal flight, other than preparing to land, those lights really only have one purpose, so other aircraft will see them. The principle is the same as used in automobiles — constant on lights.



There’s another point. A general aviation airplanes landing lights really aren’t that much better than the high beams on a car. If you drive fast enough you can drive faster than they can provide enough light to see anything too far ahead. Airplanes typically fly much faster than cars normally drive. But even more important is that when an airplane is in flight there usually isn’t anything close enough that the lights will actually illuminate. This is true for airliners also.



So how do pilots see at night? Not by the landing lights (except for landing, taxiing, and taking off).



There are four things that allow pilots to fly at night.

  • Ground illumination — Cities, towns, cars on freeways, etc all provide a diorama-like perspective that the pilots can use to both aviate (fly the airplane) and navigate.
  • Moonlight — You might be surprised how well a full moon can illuminate the ground. Even a partially lighted moon can provide perspective for a pilot.
  • Starlight — Once again, you might be surprised at the perspective that a clear sky full of starts can provide a pilot flying at night. (And the view can be spectacular!)
  • Instrumentation — An aircraft’s instruments that is certified for instrument flight (flying in the clouds) is equally useful for night flight. Sometimes a flight on a dark night is actually more difficult than flying in clouds so a pilot’s proficiency in utilizing an aircraft’s instruments can be critical for a safe flight.