The majority of airports have some type of lighting for night operations. The variety and type of lighting systems depends on the volume and complexity of operations at a given airport. Airport lighting is standardized so that airports use the same light colors for runways and taxiways.
Airport beacons help a pilot identify an airport at night. The beacons are normally operated from dusk until dawn. Sometimes they are turned on if the ceiling is less than 1,000 feet and/or the ground visibility is less than 3 statute miles (VFR minimums). However, there is no requirement for this, so a pilot has the responsibility of determining if the weather meets VFR requirements. The beacon has a vertical light distribution to make it most effective from 1–10° above the horizon, although it can be seen well above or below this spread. The beacon may be an omnidirectional capacitor-discharge device, or it may rotate at a constant speed, that produces the visual effect of flashes at regular intervals. The combination of light colors from an airport beacon indicates the type of airport. [Figure 14-28] Some of the most common beacons are:
- Flashing white and green for civilian land airports
- Flashing white and yellow for a water airport
- Flashing white, yellow, and green for a heliport
- Two quick white flashes alternating with a green flash identifying a military airport
Approach Light Systems
Approach light systems are primarily intended to provide a means to transition from instrument flight to visual flight for landing. The system configuration depends on whether the runway is a precision or nonprecision instrument runway. Some systems include sequenced flashing lights that appear to the pilot as a ball of light traveling toward the runway at high speed. Approach lights can also aid pilots operating under VFR at night.
Visual Glideslope Indicators
Visual glideslope indicators provide the pilot with glidepath information that can be used for day or night approaches. By maintaining the proper glidepath as provided by the system, a pilot should have adequate obstacle clearance and should touch down within a specified portion of the runway.
Visual Approach Slope Indicator (VASI)
VASI installations are the most common visual glidepath systems in use. The VASI provides obstruction clearance within 10° of the extended runway centerline and up to four nautical miles (NM) from the runway threshold.
The VASI consists of light units arranged in bars. There are 2-bar and 3-bar VASIs. The 2-bar VASI has near and far light bars and the 3-bar VASI has near, middle, and far light bars. Two-bar VASI installations provide one visual glidepath that is normally set at 3°. The 3-bar system provides two glidepaths, the lower glidepath normally set at 3° and the upper glidepath ¼ degree above the lower glidepath.
The basic principle of the VASI is that of color differentiation between red and white. Each light unit projects a beam of light, a white segment in the upper part of the beam and a red segment in the lower part of the beam. The lights are arranged so the pilot sees the combination of lights shown in Figure 14-29 to indicate below, on, or above the glidepath.
Other Glidepath Systems
A precision approach path indicator (PAPI) uses lights similar to the VASI system, except they are installed in a single row, normally on the left side of the runway. [Figure 14-30]A tri-color system consists of a single-light unit projecting a three-color visual approach path. Below the glidepath is indicated by red, on the glidepath is indicated by green, and above the glidepath is indicated by amber. When descending below the glidepath, there is a small area of dark amber. Pilots should not mistake this area for an “above the glidepath” indication. [Figure 14-31] Pulsating VASIs normally consist of a single-light unit projecting a two-color visual approach path into the final approach area of the runway upon which the indicator is installed. The “on glidepath” indication is a steady white light. The “slightly below glidepath” indication is a steady red light. If the aircraft descends further below the glidepath, the red light starts to pulsate. The “above glidepath” indication is a pulsating white light. The pulsating rate increases as the aircraft gets further above or below the desired glideslope. The useful range of the system is about four miles during the day and up to ten miles at night. [Figure 14-32]
There are various lights that identify parts of the runway complex. These assist a pilot in safely making a takeoff or landing during night operations.
Runway End Identifier Lights (REIL)
Runway end identifier lights (REIL) are installed at many airfields to provide rapid and positive identification of the approach end of a particular runway. The system consists of a pair of synchronized flashing lights located laterally on each side of the runway threshold. REILs may be either omnidirectional or unidirectional facing the approach area.
Runway Edge Lights
Runway edge lights are used to outline the edges of runways at night or during low visibility conditions. [Figure 14-33] These lights are classified according to the intensity they are capable of producing: high intensity runway lights (HIRL), medium intensity runway lights (MIRL), and low intensity runway lights (LIRL). The HIRL and MIRL have variable intensity settings. These lights are white, except on instrument runways where amber lights are used on the last 2,000 feet or half the length of the runway, whichever is less. The lights marking the end of the runway are red.
Runway centerline lighting system (RCLS)—installed on some precision approach runways to facilitate landing under adverse visibility conditions. They are located along the runway centerline and are spaced at 50-foot intervals. When viewed from the landing threshold, the runway centerline lights are white until the last 3,000 feet of the runway. The white lights begin to alternate with red for the next 2,000 feet. For the remaining 1,000 feet of the runway, all centerline lights are red.
Touchdown zone lights (TDZL)—installed on some precision approach runways to indicate the touchdown zone when landing under adverse visibility conditions. They consist of two rows of transverse light bars disposed symmetrically about the runway centerline. The system consists of steadyburning white lights that start 100 feet beyond the landing threshold and extend to 3,000 feet beyond the landing threshold or to the midpoint of the runway, whichever is less.
Taxiway centerline lead-off lights—provide visual guidance to persons exiting the runway. They are color-coded to warn pilots and vehicle drivers that they are within the runway environment or ILS critical area, whichever is more restrictive. Alternate green and yellow lights are installed, beginning with green, from the runway centerline to one centerline light position beyond the runway holding position or ILS critical area holding position.
Taxiway centerline lead-on lights—provide visual guidance to persons entering the runway. These “lead-on” lights are also color-coded with the same color pattern as lead-off lights to warn pilots and vehicle drivers that they are within the runway environment or ILS critical area, whichever is more conservative. The fixtures used for lead-on lights are bidirectional (i.e., one side emits light for the lead-on function while the other side emits light for the lead-off function). Any fixture that emits yellow light for the lead-off function also emits yellow light for the lead-on function.
Land and hold short lights—used to indicate the hold short point on certain runways which are approved for LAHSO. Land and hold short lights consist of a row of pulsing white lights installed across the runway at the hold short point. Where installed, the lights are on anytime LAHSO is in effect. These lights are off when LAHSO is not in effect.