Once the passengers are loaded, the paperwork is completed, and the plane is preflighted it’s time to leave the gate. At this point, many passengers just want to get in the air. For the curious bunch, some important steps actually occur between the gate and the runway. With this post, we’ll examine what’s going on up front just prior to takeoff.
A Concrete Maze
Most passengers who’ve flown into a major airport have probably noticed that an astonishing amount of confusion can be crammed onto the airport’s real estate. Besides the enormous terminals and the runways, an awful lot of additional items are cluttering up the airport. There are taxiways, signs, lights, navigation & weather equipment, ground vehicles, maintenance materials, and other airplanes between the gate and the departure runway. Ever wondered how pilots manage to get where they need to be? Follow me.
A Method to the Madness
Despite the frequently ridiculous layouts of massive airports, there is a systematic method in place to sort through the chaos. For starters, runways are numbered in reference to their magnetic direction. With this system, pilots have the benefit of the compass to aid with orientation. In addition, this numbering method is universal, meaning international crews won’t have to learn a new system. As airplanes always want to take off into the wind, flight crews can often anticipate the departure runway based on current wind conditions.
Unlike some macho motorists, pilots have no trouble asking for directions. Let’s look at some of the options at their disposal.
Taxi Diagrams: These incredibly useful charts give a bird’s eye view of the airport property. All runways, taxiways, terminals, and other noteworthy structures are labeled for easy reference. These diagrams are available in paper & electronic form and are a must for large airport operations.
Signs: Navigating an airport is a lot like navigating the interstate. Airports contain a plethora of signage to assist aviators in maneuvering on the surface area. Signs denote runway & taxiway locations/directions, provide information relevant to the airfield, identify areas to avoid/ exercise caution, and even reveal runway length. These signs and their characteristics are universal, and they provide a wealth of pertinent information to pilots.
Pavement Markings: Pavement markings provide additional info to pilots and help supplement airport signs. These markings are also universal and denote runways, taxiways, areas to avoid, locations to exercise caution, and loads of other useful info. As these identifiers are painted onto the airport surfaces, they are most visible/helpful during daylight hours.
Lights: While hub airports can be confusing during the day, the possibility of disorientation magnifies after sunset. To minimize the potential for chaos, all airport lights are standardized based on color. If you’ve never seen a commercial airport at night, it’s quite comparable to the Vegas strip. The slew of colorful lights helps pilots identify runways (and sometimes their lengths), taxiways, thresholds, and even their approach angle to the runway. Based on color alone, a string of airport lights can tell flight crews a lot about their position/status at the aerodrome.
The Human Element
As immensely helpful as visual aids and magnetic orientation can be, the most valuable assistance comes from air traffic control (ATC). In fact, one segment of the ATC workforce deals exclusively with aircraft (and some vehicles) moving on the airport’s surface. This division, called ground control, is the ATC entity airplanes call at pushback. Ground control then provides taxi instructions to the appropriate departure runway. Ground also monitors potential surface traffic conflicts and issues alerts when necessary. If an airplane becomes lost or disoriented during taxi, ground can provide progressive taxi instructions, which consist of turn-by-turn guidance to the plane’s destination. After arriving aircraft land and exit the runway, ground provides them with taxi instructions to their terminal, gate, or other destination on the airport.
Though ground maneuvering comprises a small percentage of each flight, it can be a confusing segment with a large potential for error. By effectively utilizing the resources outlined above, pilots minimize potential risks and streamline the journey ,[object Object]