On a clear night, everyone can spot planes quite easily: they have flashing lights. I have noticed that the pattern seems different for different planes, and tried to find a meaning.

What I saw so far is that they seem to have three lights that flash, two at the wings, one at the tail. Those at the wings flash two times (approximately per second, in quick succession), and that one at the tail flashes only once, along with the first flash of the wing.

Now that explains two patterns I seem to see from further away: Two flashes and one flash. It is probably that I am just not seeing the wings flashing for those where I only see one.

So far so good, but then again sometimes I see planes with more flashing, and those are faster. I had difficulties to count them, but it's at least three, maybe four quick flashes.

Do these different patterns have any meaning? I tried to match up the planes with the flight radar information, but since it is quite crowded around here, I wasn't really able to identify them. But whenever I saw that quick flashing ones, there was a military plane around, is that just coincidence?

  • $\begingroup$ Nothing more than Airbus vs Boeing vs others. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 13:18
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ Yes they have a meaning, it's "don't crash into me!" $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ One day we'll flash landing lights to send Moss codes through the air. $\endgroup$
    – kevin
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 15:54
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Because we all know, @kevin, that a flying plane gathers no moss. ;) $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ Here is the pattern for A320 utcaerospacesystems.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/… $\endgroup$
    – Ed Randall
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 14:19

7 Answers 7


Civilian aircraft have flashing lights based on manufacturer design preference. As others have stated, aircraft like Boeing and Airbus have different patterns.

However, military aircraft can often select the pattern they want to use. This helps military pilots identify key tactical aircraft during night operations, such as the tanker flying around the carrier. It is definitely not coincidental that you noticed military aircraft with a unique pattern, although I'm truly shocked at your attention to detail.


No, the pattern has no meaning, though the double-flash does identify the plane as an Airbus; other manufacturers use a single flash.

  • $\begingroup$ I believe the MD-11 does doubles, too. And maybe some of the smaller stuff (Embraer, Canadair, ATR and the likes) but I can't remember now, and also it's been a while since I've been close to anything with fixed wings - other than automobiles, that is. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2020 at 18:46

In general, lights flash for the same reason that hazard lights on a car flash; because flashing lights are easier to see than solid lights. This applies to a lot of things in aviation. Building lights, tower lights, aircraft lights all flash because it is easier to see a strobe in low visibility than a steady light. White strobes are also brighter and red strobes are less reactive to the eye (which is why cockpits use red light). All of these combined help to make strobes easier to see and identify.

As to the pattern, as many have mentioned there is no specification on a specific pattern that aircraft manufacturers need to follow. For an aircraft like an airbus, wing tips may have a different blink pattern because the manufacturer wanted it that way. If I could take a guess, it would be so you can identify the orientation of the aircraft if you cannot still see the solid colored lights.


Red flashing lights top and bottom of the aircraft are turned on when pilots are clear to start engine. If you see those lights you know that there is an aircraft with running engines. So it could be moving towards to you, so be careful.

Tail light is for it to be seen from behind. The aircraft behind of you knows there is an aircraft in front of him.

Flashing light at wings means that this aircraft is airborned or about to be. Pilots turns that lights on when they are on the runway. These lights are stays put during the entire flight until the aircraft off the runway after landing.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do you have any sources for these? I just came upon this question and noticed that everyone else is pretty much saying that the lights are different across manufacturers. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 1:29
  • $\begingroup$ "Flashing light at wings" are called strobes, and are a form of anti collision lights. It depends on aircraft model and SOP when they're turned on. Some aircraft have no "Red flashing lights" called a beacon -- also an anti collision light -- these aircraft generally turn on the strobes before engine start. $\endgroup$
    – falstro
    Commented Sep 13, 2015 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ As answered by Orko, FAA requests in the AIM manual for pilots to only turn strobes on just prior to takoff (and turn off immediately after landing) so the eyes of landing aircraft are not distracted or confused with the other runway lights such as the REIL - runway end identifier lights. The other information provided by Orko is common knowledge for any pilot or mechanic that has ever pre-flighted an airplane. $\endgroup$
    – jwzumwalt
    Commented Jan 1, 2018 at 12:06

Example of anticolision lights pattern on military helicopter.. enter image description here

Pilots can select the pattern they want to use according to tactical situation:

enter image description here


There's no specification for a pattern of flashing, and significant variations exist among different airlines and military. There is a uniform requirement for position lights (steady red and green on the left and right wingtips, white on the tail) and an anti-collision light system which is one or more flashing lights which can be anywhere on the aircraft. US requirements are in 14 CFR 25.1401, and say that the system must appear to flash between 40 and 100 times a minute. Areas where lights overlap can have as many as 180 flashes per minute.


I don't know about civilian aircraft, but it's true that military aircraft have specific patterns. Each aircraft role flashes differently. Ill use F-18s as an example because they are multirole. An F-18 tanker might flash *, where an F-18 strike fighter might flash like *-

Both same aircraft but different jobs, hence different patterns

  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Do you have anything you can point to that backs up this claim? $\endgroup$
    – Ralph J
    Commented Sep 13, 2015 at 4:02

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