The Annotated Airport

A guide to the meaning of the myriad signs, lines, circles, arrows, numbers, letters, and lights on the airport grounds.

Air & Space Magazine

AS AN AIRLINER MAKES ITS WAY AROUND an airport from the terminal to takeoff and, after the flight, back to the terminal, it encounters cryptic messages at every turn. To passengers, they may as well be hieroglyphs, but pilots understand them well, having been required to learn a second language: Airportese.

Airport Grounds

A rotating beacon, intended to be seen from the air, that flashes white and green, says, “This is a civil airport.” One green and two white flashes means ”military airport”—no civil aircraft allowed. White and yellow signifies “water airport”—floatplanes and flying boats only. Green, yellow, and white indicates “heliport”—rotary-wing aircraft only.

H Helicopter landing area

The elevation notice tells pilots this airport is, for example, 1,050 feet above mean sea level. The pilots make sure their altimeters agree.

A crew can taxi to the compass rose, align with a spoke, or bearing — 90 degrees, for instance— and check to see if the compass reads 90. (If it doesn’t, the compass needs to be recalibrated.)

The wind sock is a fabric or plastic cone that shows which way the wind is blowing. Aircraft take off and land into the wind. Taking off or landing with a tailwind increases the amount of runway required to lift off or come to a stop.


Blue lights outline a taxiway. Green lights run down the center.

White and yellow lights outline a runway. White lights run down the center.

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