Radio is the main form of communication between pilots and air traffic control. In the case of communication failure or if an aircraft is not equipped with a radio, Aviation Light Signals are used to relay aircraft navigational instructions. Much like a third-base coach using his/her hands to signal instructions to a batter, traffic controllers communicate to pilots through the use of signal lamps. Signal lamps generate three colors: red, white, and green and have two states: steady and flashing. These colors and states have specific meanings that vary depending on whether an aircraft is in flight or on the ground.
Aviation light signals on the ground are as follows. A steady green light signals to a pilot on the ground that an aircraft is clear for takeoff. A flashing green light signals to a pilot on the ground that an aircraft is cleared to taxi. A steady red light signals to a pilot to stop immediately and hold their position. Where as a flashing red light signals to a pilot that the aircraft must taxi clear of the runway to allow other aircraft to use it. Flashing white lights signal to a pilot to return to their starting point or return to the airport parking apron. Alternating red/green lights -- in countries such as the United States -- signal to a pilot an important warning to exercise extreme caution.
An airborne aircraft receiving a steady green light signals to a pilot go, you are clear to land. When a flashing green light signal is given to an aircraft that has just taken off it is essentially a return and land, go-around command. When a steady red light is signaled to a flying aircraft the pilot knows to continue circling and give way to other aircraft until the air traffic controller indicates it is clear to land (by giving a steady green light). Flashing red lights signal to a flying aircraft danger, the airport is unsafe and not to land. Alternating red/green lights is the same as an “on the ground” red/green light; exercise extreme caution. Next time you’re in a plane about to land or on the runway waiting to take off, see if you can’t spot the silent communication of aviation light signals.
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