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What do the Navigating Signs on airport runways mean?


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Every airport in the world, despite their very different layouts, uses the same basic signage to direct planes to and from the terminals. And that’s because taxiing a plane is significantly more difficult than piloting a plane.

Planes, as one might imagine, are not really suited for driving the way they are suited for flying. They have incredibly wide wingspans, as wide as 230 ft, making them hard to gauge the clearance for. To make matters worse, they are swept wings; while their shape increases aerodynamics significantly, they do make gauging the clearance more difficult than they already are. Planes also have long bodies with the forwardmost wheel, the nose wheel, far behind the cockpit, making turns quite the tribulation. The pilots can’t make a turn the way they would in a car, they have to pass the actual turn before they begin making their turn in order to avoid hitting the grass. They’re also incredibly heavy, making a tight turn in a commercial plane requires added thrust, but that’s less than ideal on a busy tarmac with so many other hazards nearby. The only way a pilot can be prepared to taxi their plane is to understand the layout of the tarmac and know how to navigate all the signs, lines, lights, etc.

Every airport has their own rules dictated by their layout, but they all have the same standard lines. White lines and white lights are used to mark runways; the lights are used to mark the edge and the center line. On the other hand, yellow lines and blue lights are typically used to mark taxiways. The blue lights mark the edges of the taxiways while green lights mark the center line. Typically, the lights are embedded in such a way that if they plane is perfectly centered in the lanes, the pilot can feel it as the nose wheel bumps over the center lines.

Signs are another common fixture of any airport tarmac. Like highways, the runways all have names; they can be named anything from a single letter to a combination of letters and numbers. Other descriptions like “inner”, “outer”, “North”, or “West” may also be used. And like with the lines, a yellow sign is typically indicative of a taxiway. As a plane approaches the runway, it is confronted with two-digit numbers like “04”, either posted on signs or painted on the runway. This tells the pilot that they are approaching Runway 04, which got its name from its orientation rounded off to the nearest tenth; Runway 04 has a bearing of approximately 040 degrees northeast. In the opposite direction of the same runway is Runway 22 with a bearing of approximately 220 degrees southwest. If runways are parallel, airports typically add an “R”, “L”, or “C” to the runway name for “right”, “left”, and “center”.

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March 19, 2019

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