Light Gun Signals


  • Light gun signals are a tool used by Air Traffic Control Towers (ATCT) when:
    • No radio is equipped on the aircraft
    • Communications cannot be established, or
    • During communication malfunctions [Figure 1]
  • Applies not only to aircraft, but to ground vehicles, equipment, and personnel not equipped with radios
  • ATC personnel use a directive traffic control signal which emits an intense narrow light beam of a selected color (either red, white, or green) when controlling traffic by light signals

Light Gun Procedures:

  • AOPA, ATC Light Gun Signals
    AOPA, Light Gun Signals
  • If radios go out in the terminal area, circle the field and wait for light gun signals
  • If no signals appear evident after a sufficient amount of time waiting, begin an approach when traffic has been determined and de-conflicted and land on the active runway (as dictated by traffic and wind) and look for light gun signals
  • If in the pattern and no light gun signals are observed, wave-off your first approach and continue in the pattern for a full stop
  • If radio malfunction occurs after departing the parking area, watching the tower for light signals or monitor tower frequency
  • Day Light Gun Procedures:

    • Rock your wings to get towers attention and acknowledge towers instructions or light signals by moving the ailerons or rudder
  • Night Light Gun Procedures:

    • At night, acknowledge by blinking the landing or navigation lights
    • Between sunset and sunrise, a pilot wishing to attract the attention of the control tower should turn on a landing light and taxi the aircraft into a position, clear of the active runway, so that light is visible to the tower
      • The landing light should remain on until appropriate signals are received from the tower
  • AOPA, ATC Light Gun Signals
    AOPA, Light Gun Signals


  • A green light means you are cleared to land on any runway
  • Signals can be difficult to see during the day, especially if you're trying to fly and look at the tower [Video 1]
    • At night, light signals as you can imagine are easy to see, but from towers point of view, you may not
    • Complicating matters, if you have an electrical issue causing your inability to communicate, you may not have working lights either
  • Disadvantages:
    1. Pilots may not be looking at the control tower at the time a signal is directed toward their aircraft
    2. The directions transmitted by a light signal are very limited since only approval or disapproval of a pilot's anticipated actions may be transmitted
      • No supplement or explanatory information may be transmitted except by the use of the "General Warning Signal" which advises the pilot to be on alert

Private Pilot - Communications, Light Signals, and Runway Lighting Systems Airman Certification Standards:

Risk Management:

The applicant is able to identify, assess, and mitigate risk associated with:
  • PA.III.A.R1:

  • PA.III.A.R2:

    Deciding if and when to declare an emergency
  • PA.III.A.R3:

  • PA.III.A.R3:

    Use of non-standard phraseology


The applicant exhibits the skill to:
  • PA.III.A.S1:

    Select and activate appropriate frequencies
  • PA.III.A.S2:

    Transmit using standard phraseology and procedures as specified in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and Pilot/Controller Glossary
  • PA.III.A.S3:

    Acknowledge radio communications and comply with ATC instructions or as directed by the evaluator


  • Although the traffic signal light offers the advantage that some control may be exercised over nonradio equipped aircraft, pilots should be cognizant of the disadvantages
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