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Navigation light

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Title: Navigation light  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Port and starboard, Optical communication, Flashtube, Running lights, Stern
Collection: Aerospace Engineering, Aircraft External Lights, Nautical Terms, Optical Communications
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Navigation light

The winglet and red navigation light on the port (left) wing of a South African Airways Boeing 747-400 aircraft

A navigation light is a colored source of illumination on a waterborne vessel, aircraft and some spacecraft, used to signal a craft's position, heading, and status. Commonly, their placement is mandated by international conventions or civil authorities. Contrary to the name, these lights are not used for navigating. They indicate the craft's relative position, and are thus, often called "Position lights".

Navigation lighting systems include:

  • Right-of-way lights — A red light is mounted on the left or port side of the craft and a green on the right or starboard side. In a situation where the paths of two watercraft or aircraft cross, these lights help each crew determine the other craft's direction and who has right-of-way. When two craft have crossing paths, each sees a red or green running light. The one on the port side of the other, which must yield right of way, sees red, while the one on the starboard side of the other, which has right of way, sees green.
A British Airways Boeing 757-200 lands. The port wing tip carries a red navigation light.
  • Strobe lights — On aircraft primarily, strobe lights flash a high-intensity burst of white light, to help other pilots recognize the aircraft's position in low-visibility conditions.


  • Marine navigation lights 1
    • Basic lighting 1.1
    • Lights of special significance 1.2
  • Aviation navigation lights 2
  • Spacecraft navigation lights 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Marine navigation lights

In 1838 the United States passed an act requiring steamboats running between sunset and sunrise to carry one or more signal lights; color, visibility and location were not specified. In 1848 the United Kingdom passed regulations that required steam vessels to display red and green sidelights as well as a white masthead light. In 1849 the U.S. Congress extended the light requirements to sailing vessels. In 1889 the United States convened the first International Maritime Conference to consider regulations for preventing collisions. The resulting Washington Conference Rules were adopted by the U.S in 1890 and became effective internationally in 1897. Within these rules was the requirement for steamships to carry a second mast head light. The international 1948 Safety of Life at Sea Conference recommended a mandatory second masthead light solely for power driven vessels over 150 feet in length and a fixed sternlight for almost all vessels. The regulations have changed little since then.[1]

The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea established in 1972 stipulates the requirements for the navigation lights required on a vessel.

Basic lighting

Basic lighting configuration. 2=a vessel facing directly towards observer; 4=vessel facing away from the observer.

To avoid collisions, vessels mount navigation lights that permit other vessels to determine the type and relative angle of a vessel, and thus decide if there is a danger of collision. In general sailing vessels are required to carry a green light that shines from dead ahead to 2 points (22½°) abaft[note 1] the beam on the starboard side (the right side from the perspective of someone on board facing forward), a red light from dead ahead to two points abaft the beam on the port side (left side) and a white light that shines from astern to two points abaft the beam on both sides. Power driven vessels, in addition to these lights, must carry either one or two (depending on length) white masthead lights that shine from ahead to two points abaft the beam on both sides. If two masthead lights are carried then the after one must be higher than the forward one.[2] Hovercraft at all times and some boats operating in crowded areas may also carry a yellow flashing beacon for added visibility during day or night.

Lights of special significance

In addition to red, white and green running lights, a combination of red, white and green Mast Lights placed on a mast higher than all the running lights, and viewable from all directions, may be used to indicate the type of craft or the service it is performing. See "Quick Guide" in external links.

  • Ships at anchor display one or two white anchor lights (depending on the vessel's length) that can be seen from all directions. If two lights are shown then the forward light is higher than the aft one.
  • Boats classed as "small" are not compelled to carry navigation lights and may make use of a handheld torch.

Aviation navigation lights

1) Navigation lights 2) Aft light 3) Anti-collision strobe lights 4) Logo light

Aircraft navigation lights are placed in a way similar to that of marine vessels, with a red navigation light located on the left wingtip leading edge and a green light on the right wingtip leading edge. A white navigation light is as far aft as possible on the tail or each wing tip.[3] High-intensity strobe lights are located on the aircraft to aid in collision avoidance.[4]

In civil aviation, pilots must keep navigation lights on from sunset to sunrise. High-intensity white strobe lights are part of the anti-collision light system, as well as the red rotating beacon.

All aircraft built after 11 March 1996 must have an anti-collision light system (strobe lights or rotating beacon) turned on for all flight activities in poor visibility. The anti-collision system is recommended in good visibility, where only strobes and beacon are required. For example, just before pushback, the pilot must keep the beacon lights on to notify ground crews that the engines are about to start. These beacon lights stay on for the duration of the flight. While taxiing, the taxi lights are on. When coming onto the runway, the taxi lights go off and the landing lights and strobes go on. When passing 10,000 feet, the landing lights are no longer required, and the pilot can elect to turn them off. The same cycle in reverse order applies when landing.

Civilian commercial airliners also have other non-navigational lights. These include logo lights, which illuminate the company logo on the tail fin. These lights are optional to turn on, though most pilots switch them on at night to increase visibility from other aircraft. Modern airliners also have a wing light. These are positioned on the outer side just in front of the engine cowlings on the fuselage. These are not required to be on, but in some cases pilots turn these lights on for engine checks and also while passengers board the aircraft for better visibility of the ground near the aircraft.

Spacecraft navigation lights

In 2011, ORBITEC developed the first Light-emitting diode (LED) lighting system for use about spacecraft. Currently, Cygnus spacecraft, which are unmanned transport vessels designed for cargo transport to the International Space Station, utilize a navigational lighting system consisting of five flashing high power LED lights.[5] The Cygnus displays a flashing red light on the port side of the vessel, a flashing green on the starboard side of the vessel, two flashing white lights on the top and one flashing yellow on the bottom side of the fuselage.

The Dragon cargo spacecraft from SpaceX also features a flashing strobe along with red and green lights.


  1. ^ abaft: to the rear/closer to stern/'aft'


  1. ^ Handbook of the Nautical Rules of the Road Llana and Wisneskey
  2. ^ The International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea, Part C, Lights and Shapes
  3. ^ """14 CFR 25.1385, "Position light system installation. Retrieved 2012-12-09. 
  4. ^ """14 CFR 23.1401, "Anticollision light system. Retrieved 2012-12-09. 
  5. ^ "ORBITEC Delivers First-Ever LED Lighting System for Orbital Science's Cygnus Module Spacecraft Navigation Lighting". Retrieved 2013-04-13. 

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