"Taxi to Runway One-Niner Left."--Local ground control.
"Landing Runway One-One Left and One-One Right."--Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS).
These are typical communications at airports with control towers. However, the savvy pilot will parley runway names into important information.
Let's start with the rudimentary. Runways are named with numerical identification consistent with their magnetic bearing, to the nearest 5 degrees. A runway aligned to 288 degrees magnetic usually is referred to as Runway 29, but not always. And the same strip of concrete is labeled Runway 11, the reciprocal, when taking off or landing in the opposite direction. (To learn a memory trick for determining reciprocals, see "Move the 2," April 2004 AOPA Flight Training).
Other factors can come into play. The Earth's magnetic field gradually shifts. Over several years a runway's magnetic bearing will drift, but runways are not often surveyed the moment variation exceeds plus or minus 5 degrees. So the magnetic heading of your airplane when aligned with a runway may not be within 5 degrees of the runway's number. For example, at Metropolitan Oakland International in Oakland, California, runways 9 Left and 9 Right are oriented 098 degrees magnetic.
It should be obvious the suffix "right" means there must be another parallel runway labeled "left," and perhaps even a third runway called "center." But another factor that affects runway identification is the proximity of similarly aligned runways. To avoid confusion runways may be purposely given names that differ from actual magnetic alignment.
Philadelphia International Airport has three parallel runways, but one is short and usually reserved for general aviation. The longer two typically are used by airliners. To avoid confusion, the two 10,000-foot runways are 9R and 9L, while the shorter, parallel 5,000-foot runway is called Runway 8--even though all three runways have a magnetic bearing of 088 degrees.
Some large airports like Dallas-Fort Worth International have four parallel runways: 35R, 35L, 36R, and 36L all are oriented 355 degrees. A similar situation occurs at Los Angeles International Airport, where runways 6R, 6L, 7R, and 7L all are parallel; and at Orlando International Airport, where 17L, 17R, 18L, and 18R point in the same direction.
Airports with parallel runways are often tower-controlled fields, and the tower will guide your traffic pattern. However, the pattern for a runway labeled "right" will likely be a right-hand pattern, and for a "left" runway, your turns from downwind to base, and base to final, usually will be to the left. This is particularly important when landing at a nontowered airport with parallel runways--for example, Clarence E. Page Municipal Airport in Oklahoma City.
If you are landing at North Perry Airport in Hollywood, Florida, you are faced with two pairs of parallel runways at right angles, forming a square with extended edges. Right-hand patterns are expected for runways 9R, 18R, 27R, and 36R, and standard left-hand patterns for runways 9L, 18L, 27L, and 36L. Note that runways pointing north are never labeled Runway 00.
The more complex the runway layout at an airport, the more important it is that departing or landing pilots have a clear understanding of the airport geography.
There is now little excuse for not having a current airport diagram in the cockpit. Pilots operating under visual flight rules (VFR) should carry an FAA Airport/Facility Directory. However, airport diagrams can be downloaded directly from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Web site or the FAA's site--and the online diagrams are free! If you carry instrument flight rules (IFR) approach charts, airport diagrams are readily available as part of both National Aeronautical Charting Office and Jeppesen products. The ASF site offers many other information resources to help you navigate airports large and small; take the free Runway Safety online course.
Currency is also an issue. Runways can be added or decommissioned, and taxiways are more often altered. Communications frequencies--ATIS, common airport advisory, ground, and tower--change. If you do not have a subscription, download and print appropriate online airport diagrams; they're current and will help to keep you safe.
Some GPS moving-map displays can depict runway diagrams, but runways alone are not sufficient. An airport diagram provides much more detail, and will help you find Taxiway C2. Look at the diagram before you begin to taxi, and follow your progress just like you do on a sectional chart while in flight. Many pilots find it helpful to mark their taxi route on the paper diagram.
If you ever have any question about how to get to a runway at a towered airport, or to parking, there is no penalty asking ground control for a progressive taxi clearance. The ground controller will appreciate your admission that you are unfamiliar with the airport and are unsure you can follow taxi instructions. That is better than the controller having to untangle a ground traffic jam when you are face to face with another aircraft on a narrow taxiway--or, even worse, you stumble onto an active runway without a clearance.
Airport diagrams include the magnetic bearing of each runway. Having this information allows for an important last-minute check of your gyro compass. There is an easy way to do this. When taxiing onto the active runway at a nontowered field, or when cleared for takeoff by a tower, taxi into position and squarely align with the centerline. Stop--there should be no rush. Check that you are on the correct runway. The compass and runway heading should match. Pilots not only have been known to take off from the wrong runway, but to turn the wrong way on the correct runway. That last mistake happens when entering a runway from a taxiway that is not at a runway end. A wrong-way takeoff may not provide sufficient length for a safe operation, not to mention the obvious collision hazard.
When landing, having a detailed airport diagram is vital. Most airports have taxiways that parallel landing runways, and at some airports several inviting taxiways may rival the size and shape of the landing runway. Throw in a parallel runway with two or more parallel taxiways, and it is easy to land on a taxiway or the wrong runway. An airport diagram will clarify such issues.
At times parts of runways are closed, or the pilot is asked to only use a portion of the runway to allow for traffic using an intersecting runway in a procedure known as Land and Hold Short Operations, or LAHSO. "Cleared to land Runway Two-Niner Left, hold short of Runway Four." How much runway is available before you reach Runway 4? If you do not know, you should ask, but an airport diagram will help.
And then there are hot spots, places where intersecting taxiways and/or runways have proven to be problems for pilots; they are marked with circles on Jeppesen airport diagrams. If other pilots have been become disoriented there, perhaps it is worthy of your attention.
Runway lighting offers many clues when landing at night. If you know what the approach lighting looks like, you are more likely to find and land on the correct runway. Even when flying during daytime, the position of vertical guidance lighting--such as a Visual Approach Slope Indicator (VASI)--helps to identify the correct runway well before the runway numbers are visible. Flying at night or IFR, approach lighting system details are extremely helpful.
The center of the runway at Put In Bay, a small Ohio airport on an island in Lake Erie, used to have a dogleg, requiring that you change heading halfway through the landing or takeoff roll. I wondered if the opposite runway numbers were not reciprocals. However, the runway has been improved, and is now straight, though an important glitch remains. A monument to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (remember the War of 1812 and the Battle of Lake Erie?) stands a mile and a half off the end of Runway 3 slightly to the left on takeoff, and is more than 300 feet above airport elevation. A right-hand pattern is expected to Runway 3, and best avoids the concrete pylon.
Perhaps a runway in the far north of Canada might be long enough from east to west so the magnetic bearing at the two ends of the runway is not reciprocals. Do not look for an example, because in the far north where magnetic compasses are confused by their proximity to the magnetic pole, runways are labeled according to alignment with true north.
It's important to know as much as you can about any runway you will be using. That means having a runway diagram at hand, and spending preflight time researching where you are, and where you are going. The advent of the Internet has made current information easily available and free. Aerial photographs, runway conditions, nonstandard traffic patterns, hours of operation, and the like are found searching by airport name, or using AOPA Online, the FAA, or private sites. A tremendous amount of information is available to help make any takeoff or landing safe.
Dr. Ian Blair Fries is a CFI, senior aviation medical examiner, and ATP, and holds a Lear 35 type rating. He serves on the AOPA Air Safety Foundation Board of Visitors and is cochairman of the AOPA Board of Medical Advisors.
Links to additional resources about the topics discussed in this article are available at AOPA Flight Training Online.