The Annotated Airport

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

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Runwayholding position Stop here and do not move until ground control clears the aircraft to enter or cross the runway.

IF A CREW IS HOPELESSLY LOST, it might employ the bluff used in what is probably an aeronautical urban legend. Back when New York’s Kennedy airport was called Idlewild, a couple of neophyte pilots in a light aircraft requested taxi instructions for takeoff. Ground control responded with a hideously complex series of instructions involving turns at what seemed like a couple of dozen intersections. The frequency was silent as the pilots looked at each other cross-eyed and fumbled for a response. Finally, the copilot’s voice rang out over the radio, “Aw, the heck with it. Tell him ‘Roger.’ “

A better solution would be to ask ground control for a “progressive taxi,” in which a controller will provide taxi instructions to the pilot at each intersection encountered at the airport.


This runway, with a compass heading of about 200 degrees, is the left (L) of two parallel runways. Each runway is numbered by its compass heading rounded off to the nearest 10 degrees, with the last digit dropped. A runway that heads due north, 360 degrees, is numbered 36. The opposite end, which heads due south, 180 degrees, is 18. (Because Earth’s magnetic field changes over time due to the flow of the planet’s molten iron core—in fact, the poles swap places on average every 200,000 years—runway numbers are changed as Earth’s magnetic north pole wanders and field lines change the magnetic variation locally. For example, in 1999, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s runway 18-36 became 19-1.)

4,000 feet of runway remain.

You are on Runway 22. Remember, “black square, you’re there.”

Touchdown zone markings
: Pilots should try to put the main landing gear on the runway here.

B Exit B (Bravo) off the runway is just ahead, on the left.

Aircraft may not enter this area.

4 arrowheads This runway is 100 feet wide
2 arrowheads less than 60 feet wide

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