I would like to know how useful is skyscrapers and high buildings lighting to get a visual reference for helicopter and small planes pilots by night in cities like New York. This is different from obstruction lights. I'm talking about shapes and colors.


3 Answers 3


Buildings and their lights can be very useful to aircraft in VFR conditions at night to orient themselves regardless of the type of aircraft.

Three building lighting examples that I often used were:

  • When flying Metroliners for a commuter airline that operated to Walla Walla, WA, I would call for a visual approach to the airport when I saw the Washington State Penitentiary. It's distinctive pattern of bright lights, especially those around its perimeter, made it stick out like a sore thumb.
  • When flying night freight in 727s, from many miles out, we could see the blue neon lighting outlining the Sofitel Hotel just across the road from the southwest corner of Miami International Airport.
  • Back in the late 1990s, the high rise hotels along the beach at Tel Aviv had a distinctive pattern. Head just to the south of them and you were lined up for Ben Gurion airport when approaching from the west.

Really, if you go into most urban airports regularly at night, you learn to recognize the pattern of the lights and can use them to orient yourself.

Freeways with heavy traffic are also helpful. Interstate 5 running south from Albany, OR to Eugene, OR has a 33 mile straight stretch that produces a line of headlights. Aircraft approaching from the north can aim about 15° right of that line and be headed to the Eugene Airport.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Another example is flying into Reno from the north: the approach end of the runway is located between two brightly-lit, ~30 story hotel-casino buildings. Coming from the west in a small plane, you follow I-80 and hang a right at the MGM :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 4:53
  • $\begingroup$ Of course, relying on visual cues alone can be potentially dangerous... $\endgroup$
    – Sanchises
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 8:58

Lights at night can be useful in VFR conditions, but if conditions are less than ideal, it can be dangerous to rely on external lights.

For example, if its pitch black and you can see a light which you think is on the ground near the airport and actually its a star?

Spacial disorientation can occur very easily in poor visibility. This is the top google search result just now http://hartzellprop.com/5-tips-avoiding-spatial-disorientation-night-flying/

I would say having some instrument flying skills even if you are not instrument rated is a good thing for night flying.

If an area is very dark with no lighting whatsoever, are you sure where you are? The dark area could be a mountain that you are about to run into.

If you are on final approach and the runway lights go out, you could have descended too far and there is ground between you and the airport.

Night flying in anything other than perfect VFR conditions can be challenging especially if the pilot doesn't do much of it.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's pretty easy to tell the difference between stars and ground lights. What can get rather disorienting, at least in my experience, is flying over places (like parts of Nevada) where you can see only one ground light. It seems to hold my attention, without being much use for orientation. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 9, 2019 at 17:01

In addition to the direct visual references provided by building and street lighting, in major urban areas the overall light pollution often provides enough light to see terrain and unlit obstructions. I commute across the Los Angeles basin by Lancair daily, and if it's overcast or slightly hazy the reflected and scattered city lights provide almost as much general illumination as one would get from a good moon on a clear night in an unpopulated area.


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