The image shown in the question Which aircraft had such a luxurious-looking navigator's station? (also below) shows a flare gun with several flares.

A comment below the question says:

On the bonus question: flares were often used for communication between planes, sometime even when all planes in the formation had radio (to the point that new flare systems had to be designed for high altitude pressurized bombers at the end of WWII). Given the number of cartridges right under the flare gun, I think it is indeed for communication and not just for distress signaling, so you would probably want it readily available.

How common was it for this to be used, and how effective was it, especially during the day? When would it be used, and what would the flare indicate or communicate?

cropped and sharpened from https://i.sstatic.net/K0cO2.jpg used in here.

enter image description here Source.

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    $\begingroup$ I can't find a good source to back it up at the moment, but I'm pretty sure the Ka-50 has a signal flare system which can deploy color-coded signal flares. Also not sure if it is still present on the Ka-52. I'll try to develop this into an answer later. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ German Me 109 fighters had a flare pistol mounted below the lower right windshield pointing, forward about 45 degrees, for signaling each other when radios didn't work or couldn't be used. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ Navy craft around the WWII era definitely used flares for signalling, including for IFF purposes when radio communication was either impractical or being deliberately avoided (espionage and location-finding being the major reasons not to use radio or wireless telegraphy). $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ Author of the comment quoted: Sorry, I'm far from as knowledgeable on this subject than my comment could imply :) hence why I only made it a comment. The information I had was from this Forgotten Weapon video about a pressurized plane's flare system, and what could be deduced from it. $\endgroup$
    – Luris
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Luris welcome to Stack Exchange! There's nothing to say sorry about, the video is a great explanation and you can cite it as a source for your first SE answer. You can add both the Forgotten Weapons page and the YouTube as links, turn on Close Captions and write down one or two points from the narration, and add a screen shot like this one i.sstatic.net/jvS5b.jpg and you've got your first SE answer! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 23:10

1 Answer 1


This break down of a B24 Missions seems to outline the usage of flare on a mission well:


After takeoff, a pilot usually kept on a straight course for about two minutes, in part because the B-24 was not very maneuverable until it had gained speed and altitude. The pilot then climbed at a predetermined rate (about 300 feet per minute at 150 mph Indicated Air Speed) to the assembly area assigned to the 392nd. A ship, usually 41-23689, Minerva, orbited a radio beacon at the prescribed altitude and fired designated colored flares to signal 392nd BG a/c. The specified assembly altitude was based on cloud conditions. Clear skies meant assembly could be at 5,000 to 10,000 feet. Often, though, pilots had to climb to 20,000 feet or higher to get above the clouds, relying on instruments to maintain headings, speeds and timed legs.

When on the actual mission...

Mission Routes

Routes were scheduled to avoid major flak areas as much as possible and to mislead enemy fighters about the intended target. Each route, then, included several course changes until the Initial Point (IP) was reached. The IP was usually an unmistakable landmark, both visually and on radar. At the IP, the lead plane alerted the formation to turn toward the target by signal flares or by opening its bomb bay doors. All other planes promptly opened their own bomb bays and made the turn while simultaneously aligning in trail. On the bomb run, Groups were usually two to five miles apart.

Then on the way home:


By this time, the formation was down to a few hundred feet. While in the landing pattern circuit, the engineer confirmed the wheels were down and locked. Planes with wounded aboard or severe battle damage fired two red flares and landed first.

A few sources cite the M8 Flare gun being the one that was likely used during WWII. There is a discussion that covers some of the colors and cartridges here.

This book which talks about flare usage quite a bit, discusses a lot of the ground <-> air communication done with flares:

The increasing amount of airfield bombardment led to the establishment of false aerodromes. These false fields gave the appearance of active aerodromes by day and night in the hope that enemy bombers would be fooled into releasing their bomb loads a mile or two from the real airfields. At night, active fields remained concealed in darkness until an airplane was properly identified through flare signals.

It goes on to say:

Signaling devices were necessary for communications with the ground. The flare gun provided the most basic means of signaling. The Allies used the Chobert, more commonly known as the Very pistol. British and American night squadrons used three different colored Very cartridges, red, white, and green. Each cartridge had a different milling along its metal base flange so that aviators could quickly feel for the correct shell in the dark.

Some flares were also used for ground illumination

Illuminating flares were developed for target acquisition and landing assistance. One of the most important was the Holt wingtip landing flare. Useful in an emergency or under inadequate field lighting conditions, the Holt flare was ignited electrically (by dry cell battery) from a push button in the cockpit. Typically the flare would burn for a maximum of two minutes at up to 20,000 candlepower.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the thorough answer, again! I'm pondering "orbited a radio beacon at the prescribed altitude". I'm guessing that orbited means it flew in a tight circle, but really curious what beaconing at a prescribed altitude meant in the block quote; if beacon direction-finding was sensitive enough to report an altitude difference (vertical angle) as well as a bearing. Do you think this warrants a separate question? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh orbiting a radio beacon is likely akin to if not the same as what we now call a holding pattern. Depending on what you want to know about holding a new question is likely warranted. $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ it's the altitude part I'm interested in, if the beacon was at a "prescribed altitude" in order to provide altitude information as well as bearing information. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh beacons do not provide altitude information, altimeters do. If you are told to hold on the XX beacon at 3000 you get the 3000 information from the altimeter in your aircraft and the distance/bearing information from the beacon. Typically those beacons are VOR's, VORTACs, TACANs or a GPS point but ATC can assign various types of holds around many things. $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ This makes so much more sense than what was going on in my head! I was thinking "radio silence, so open the canopy and fire a flare to indicate turn right", then "won't that flare be pretty visible to troops on the ground?". $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 20:50

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