Did a plane have me in its headlights?
April 2, 2012 6:19 AM   Subscribe

Did a plane have me in its headlights?

I live in the western suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. Last night at 11PM I was letting my dog out and looking at the stars. I noticed one star hanging low in the eastern sky. It didn't blink or move or anything - it just looked like a bright star. While I was watching, it became brighter and brighter until it was brilliantly bright - so bright in fact that my night-adjusted eyes were starting to adjust to the light.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the brilliant light was gone -- replaced by the familiar blinking (navigation?) lights you commonly see on an airplane, and the plane was clearly now moving WSW.

It was undoubtedly a plane (the airspace over Chicago is very busy of course) -- but, am I right in thinking that it had me in whatever it is that passes for headlights?

It was a very cool experience.
posted by MustardTent to Grab Bag (8 answers total)
Probably. Aircraft landing lights are ridiculously bright. Pilots typically turn them off once they're cruising. Incidentally, some folks think it's a riot to install them on their cars.
posted by jquinby at 6:28 AM on April 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

The one time I thought I was seeing a UFO it turned out to be a plane landing and taking off at a distant airport and I was in a spot that just happened to be perfectly lined up with the runway so it appeared as if the strange light was slowly lowering itself to the ground and lifting back up again. Landing lights are really bright.
posted by Edogy at 6:28 AM on April 2, 2012

It sounds like a landing light - those are normally on for a short while both after takeoff and before landing. Looking at the location in your profile, it's conceivably in the flight path for a plane using runway 10 or 28 at DuPage airport.
posted by exogenous at 6:29 AM on April 2, 2012

actually i'd guess it was from the schaumburg airport which would be a little closer to mustardtent's location then the dupage airport. bet the plane had just taken off.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 6:38 AM on April 2, 2012

It was undoubtedly a plane (the airspace over Chicago is very busy of course) -- but, am I right in thinking that it had me in whatever it is that passes for headlights?

Yes and no. :-) In fact, those are the Aircraft Landing Lights. They are very bright because the runway surface needs to be visible to the pilot from a goodly distance when landing at night -- the edges of the runway are marked with lights, but they need to know when to flare and touchdown. They turn them on when they're in the landing pattern to make them visible to others, and to the tower. When ORD is landing to the west, you can see three lines of airplanes landing, forming three lines across the sky towards the lake.

One of the big rules is turn them *off* when you leave the runway and use the much less bright taxiing lights. In route, they just use the normal anticollision lights and strobes, but on landing, the brighter lights make it easier for the tower to find out *and* tells everyone that you're flying a pattern, so that you're not moving fast, but are moving along a constrained path.

If you remember where you were and which way you were looking, it would be a simple matter to figure out which airport they were heading to -- just draw the line on the map.
posted by eriko at 8:11 AM on April 2, 2012

Here's a quick map. I'm marked with a google-tag-deal as A. O'hare is northeast, and I've circled the apparent location of the flight with a circle.

With these positions, I thought perhaps a plane had just taken off from ORD.
posted by MustardTent at 8:56 AM on April 2, 2012

One night I awoke to find my bedroom bathed in moonlight. I almost went back to sleep, but was startled awake when I remembered that the moon wasn't up. I'm an astronomer, and I think I was teaching a lab that semester, so I was keeping track of moon phases... it was a waning crescent that night.

I looked out the window and saw something very similar to what you saw, a bright light, getting brighter and brighter and brighter. I was thinking, man, if this turns out to be aliens it's going to be very embarrassing for me, professionally...

Eventually it got close enough that I could see the navigation lights. It was, indeed, a plane with its landing lights on, coming in on approach (probably to the airport north of town.) Its course just happened to be right over my house for some reason. Never saw another plane on that approach again.

It was a pretty eerie experience.
posted by BrashTech at 9:45 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

The winds at that time were out of the northeast at O'Hare (the meteorological observation closest to 11pm last night is KORD 020351Z 03012KT 9SM FEW150 07/04 A2978 RMK AO2 SLP087 T00720039), so aircraft would generally want to be taking off and landing while facing northeast, depending on the available runway orientation. I'm more of a small plane/small airport person (my airplane has a single landing/taxi light!) but perhaps eriko is familiar with how O'hare might have been be operating then.

Other thoughts: I think that a nose-high takeoff attitude would prevent a landing light from illuminating towards the ground, so that the plane was probably descending or in level flight. It might have been a small plane traveling beneath the class B and C airspace around Chicago, especially if you couldn't see it climbing or descending.

There are a couple of small private airports charted in the vicinity of where you saw the plane, as well as Bolingbrook's Clow International Airport, so it might have been operating out of one of them. Both of the smaller private airports have lighted runways for night operations.
posted by exogenous at 9:58 AM on April 2, 2012

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