If You See A Red Ball On A Power Line, Here’s What It Means


It’s not that uncommon to see objects attached to power lines while you travel. Of course, more often than not, you just see pairs of sneakers that people have successfully hurled into the air and onto the line.

Sometimes, though, you might see a big red ball or balls of other colors. But how did they get up there, and more importantly, what purpose do they serve?

If you’re ready to solve the mystery of these strange balls attached to powerlines, we’ve got a full report.

Origin of the red balls

When did these balls first start appearing on powerlines? The answer to that question depends on who you ask and where they live.

For example, some people swear that these mysterious balls first began appearing in Florida and Arkansas in the 1950s. Other Arkansas natives insist that these balls didn’t begin appearing in their state until the 1970s.

These conflicting stories have only added to the mystery of these strange spheres. Regardless of when and where they started, though, you can now see these balls on powerlines throughout the entire country!

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Various sizes

There is another reason why many people are confused about these balls. Because they come in a variety of different sizes, even those who have experienced this phenomenon can’t always agree on what they have seen.

Some of these spheres may only be 20 inches in size. Others may be about 36 inches in diameter. And because these balls are high in the air attached to powerlines, it can be difficult to tell exactly how big they are.

If you have a keen eye, you may have noticed that some of these spheres are clustered together. Smaller ones may be spaced about 30 feet apart while larger ones are likely to be spaced about 200 feet apart.

Now that you know more about what these weird red balls look like, let’s get to the real purpose behind them.

Alarmed aviators

As we noted before, some people claim these balls began appearing on powerlines in the 1950s, and some claim they began appearing in the 1970s. One thing everyone agrees on is that they become much more popular and prominent after the 1970s. And there is a good reason for that!

In the early ’70s, Arkansas governor and wealthy scion Winthrop Rockefeller looked out of the window of his airplane as it was landing. And he was alarmed to see how close it was to the powerlines. 

Because of this, he insisted that pilots should have a better warning about where these powerlines are so they can avoid crashing into them. Eventually, these red balls a standard feature on powerlines across the U.S., but the implementation of this feature was too late to prevent some major disasters.

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Infamous helicopter disaster

As an Arkansas governor, Rockefeller could only encourage and enforce the use of these balls on powerlines in his own state. But other states learned the value of these spheres, sometimes at a very great cost!

For example, Colorado didn’t start installing the balls until the late 1980s. But this was too late to prevent a helicopter from crashing into a powerline in the state in 1988, causing a crash that killed two journalists.

These crashes were all too common. In fact, a 2002 report from the Flight Safety Foundation found that there were 50 American helicopters involved in wire-strike accidents between the years 1996–2000. Considering that these accidents occurred long after most states began putting these spheres up to warn pilots, it is alarming to think how many more crashes we would have had without these helpful spheres.

Areas where you are likeliest to see these balls

Even though these balls on powerlines prevent crashes and save lives, the Federal Aviation Administration has no authority to force states to use these balls. As a result, states must do so of their own volition, and they choose exactly where to place the spheres.

While placement guidelines may vary from state to state, you can usually count on seeing these balls in areas where helicopters and planes fly low. This includes canyons, freeways, mountain passes, and areas near airports.

The FAA cannot mandate the use of these spheres, but it can offer guidelines on where and how to use them. This includes using smaller balls for lower powerlines and larger ones for higher powerlines. And the FAA also recommends clustering these spheres closer together near airports to help pilots successfully locate and land on the runway without crashing into any powerlines.

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The reason behind the colors

One final element of confusion over these mysterious spheres concerns their very color. While many report seeing red balls, others report seeing various shades of yellow and orange. Who, then, is correct?

Technically, all of these colors are correct. Red was the first color chosen because red is easily visible against the natural color of the sky. However, after FAA research discovered that orange is more visible to pilots than red, orange then became the standard shade.

However, states may use different colors in different areas to enhance visibility, including using yellow spheres. And on long lines that have many different spheres, the balls may come in a variety of different colors in different patterns. This is so that even if a pilot misses one or two of these colors, he is likely to see one of the others!