Airport Beacons & How Santa Finds Non-Airfield Christmas Eve Stops!

Santa Claus makes what is likely the most impressive general aviation flight of the year each Christmas Eve. His route calls for a North Pole departure to reach the first destination as soon as the child’s head hits the pillow and his/her eyes close. From there Santa visits each dwelling around the globe delivering presents for those on the ‘Nice List’.

This is all the more impressive when you consider his aircraft runs on carrots, cookies and milk! Flying from various locations including airports, non-improved landing areas and mostly rooftops, which feature dramatic grade changes laterally across the landing path not to mention a variety of landing surface types from packed snow to slate, and tar shingle to tin.

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Santa’s sleigh is a one-of-a-kind aircraft, capable of handling a variety of STOL (short takeoff and landing) conditions as well as sloping runways (rooftops)!

As pilots we often complete night flights; now a days with more and more help from GPS navigation. But before we became the magenta line generation of pilots, we found airports at night looking for the dark spot alongside a well-lit City and searching for the airport beacon. This navigation aid shares its lineage back to barnstorming flying days of early air mail routes being lit by beacon.

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The beacon atop the Control Tower cab at New Bedford Regional Airport.

Pilots can identify the type of aviation facility that a rotating beacon is marking by the colors and sequence of the flashes of the beacon. Aside from beacons marking heliports, rotating beacons have a flash rate of between 24 and 30 flashes per minute, the same rate as beacons used to mark airways, a few of which still exist in the Western part of the country. In fact the state of Montana actually has an active airway beacon “program.” Ff you’re a real AvGeek like me and you’re intrigued by this concept, you can learn more about the very unique program HERE.

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The 36″ beacon (very soon to be replaced from what I’ve heard) mounted on top of the terminal/control tower building at the New Bedford Regional Airport.

The rotating beacon for a “standard” lighted, land airport features a rotating beacon that flashes white and green. This clearly distinguishes the airport from any close by light houses that have feature a white/white or white/red flash sequence.

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Edgartown Harbor Light on Martha’s Vineyard.

Alternatively military airports feature a beacon that flashes white/ white/ green. Similar to the civilian airport beacon but with the addition of one extra white flash to notify pilots the airfield they are approaching is a lighted military airfield. This is a subtle way of signaling to recreational pilots that they really shouldn’t be going there…

Another type of rotating beacon is the helipad beacon which flashes green/ yellow/ white. This type of rotating beacon alerts pilots to the facility, which in almost all cases by comparison to an airport has a significantly smaller footprint. The other key difference between a rotating beacon for a heliport and the beacon for any other type of facility is that the flashing rate for heliport beacons is faster, with 30 – 45 flashes per minute. Special helipads such as those associated with hospitals and/or emergency services flash in a sequence of white/ green/ amber.

The next type of rotating beacon would be for a seaplane base, while I’ve never seen one I remember the concept coming up as a discussion point during the Seaplane Base Master Plan project I contributed to during my time in Tavares, FL. A seaplane base beacon flashes white/ yellow and identifies a lighted water airport.

So what does all this airport rotating beacon stuff have to do with Santa?

I’m glad you asked! Santa uses a similar navigation aide to navigate during his circumnavigation of the Earth flight on Christmas Eve each year. In preparation for the flight Santa has a survey crew develop one-time-use charts for his flight. These charts are marked by Christmas light displays from across the world. Just like we as pilots use rotating beacons to get from place to place, Santa uses the wide array of Christmas light displays to gain his bearings during his night flight.

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For instance Santa can find my parents house thanks to this simple Christmas light display that my father puts out each year in the front yard… It may not be a rotating beacon, and it may be different from every other display around the world, but thanks to Santa’s magic he can use each of our individual Christmas light displays to find his way. If you don’t have a light display outside, not to worry, a well-let Christmas tree by the window is just as effective!

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9

 

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