Do You Know What These Runway Lights Mean?

Have you ever looked out the window on approach to your destination and wondered what the million dazzling lights mean, and how do pilots and ground personnel decipher them?

Here’s a quick guide to what these common runway and lighting systems mean:


Runway Edge


These are white lights that outline runway, at 3 metres from the outer edge of the runway, with the distance between each light not exceeding 60 metres (or 100 metres for non-instrument runways).

You might notice that the last one-third of the runway length is indicated with yellow Runway Edge lights, instead of white. And on runways with a displaced threshold, the lights between the threshold and start of the runway are red.

If a runway is used for night operations, or during day operations when the Runway Visual Range (RVR) falls below 800 metres, Runway Edge lights are a must.


Runway End


To mark the end of a runway, at least six red lights are used. These are placed at right angles to the runway and runway edge lights.


Runway Centre Line


When you look down on a runway, you will see that there are white and red lights along the middle of the runway. These are the Runway Centre Line lights, with the colours representing different lengths of the runway.

From runway threshold to 900m from runway end: white

From 900m to 300m from runway end: alternate red and white

From 300m from runway end: red


Runway Touch-Down Zone

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If you see lights with three or more bulbs close to each other, these are likely the Runway Touch-Down zone lights, for runways that handle precision approach operations.

They are found from the threshold to 900 metres of the runway length. On runways that are shorter than 1,800 metres, the Touch-Down Zone lights must not extend beyond the runway mid-point.


Runway Approach Lighting System


To guide pilots during landing, there are three main approach lighting systems: The Simple Approach Lighting System (SALS), the Precision Approach CAT I lighting system, and the Precision Approach CAT II/III lighting system.

SALS is used in non-instrument and non-precision approach runways. This consists of a row of lights from the Runway Centre Line to 420 metres from the threshold, and a crossbar (18 or 30 metres long) at 300 metres from the threshold.

CAT I includes a row of lights from the centre line to 900 metres from the threshold. According to ICAO, a 30-metre crossbar must be placed at 300 metres from the threshold.

CAT II/III is similar to the above, but is also equipped with a side row of red barrette lights, until 270 metres from the threshold. Additionally, there must be at least two crossbars – one at 150 metres from the threshold, and another at 300 metres.


Now you know what to look out for when you’re landing at your next destination!

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