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The New Pilot’s Guide to Runway Markings

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For new pilots, airports are a sea of confusing markings and signs. It takes a little study and practice to get it down, but once you do, you’ll find that airports are fairly straightforward and well-marked. The trick is always to have and use the airport diagram. 

However, understanding the colors, shapes, and meanings of the taxiway and runway markings is vital. Without this knowledge, airports are a daunting mess of crisscrossing pavement where it’s easy to get disoriented. 

Here’s a look at the standard runway markings you’ll see at every airport. 

Types of Runway Markings

To begin with, runway pavement markings are made in white. Taxiways, shoulders, aprons, and ramps are painted with yellow markings.

The Aeronautical Information Manual divides runway markings into six categories. 

  • Designation (runway number)
  • Centerline
  • Threshold
  • Aiming point
  • Touchdown zone 
  • Side stripes

Of these six categories of markings, only some are required, given how the runway is used. A visual runway, that is, one that is not served by any instrument approaches, only needs to have designation and centerline markings. 

If the runway gets commercial or instrument users, more markings are required. Even a visual runway, if intended for use by commercial operators, should have a threshold marking. If it’s over 4,000 feet long or may be used by jets, it should also have aiming point markings, too. 

In the world of instrument runways, those served by non-precision approaches should have all of the above: designation, centerline, threshold, and aiming point markings. A runway with a precision approach will also have touchdown zone markings and side stripes.

Runway Designation Markings

Most of us think of the designation markings as “the numbers.” They are the nearest tenth digit of the runway’s magnetic direction, so a runway pointed 358º is designated Runway 36. L, R, and C are added for parallel runways, meaning left, right, and center. 

Runway Centerline Markings

Centerline stripes provide alignment information for all pilots on landing. They are dashed white lines.

Runway centerline markings

Runway Threshold Markings

There’s more than meets the eye with runway threshold markings. These bars decorate the beginning and end of larger runways—they’re easy to spot. But they also tell the pilot how wide the runway is. The AIM lists how many bars correspond to what width of the runway.

Width of RunwayNumber of Bars
60 feet4
75 feet6
100 feet8
150 feet12
200 feet16

Reproduced from AIM TBL 2-3-2 Number of Runway Threshold Stripes

Sometimes, the end of a runway is not where the pavement begins. There are two main times this happens: for blast pads and displaced thresholds.

In either case, the beginning of the runway surface will be shown by a threshold bar. The threshold bar is a white stripe, ten feet wide, that extends across the runway. 

Runway threshold markings

Blast Pads or Stopways

Blast pads are marked with yellow chevrons. They are not intended for normal operations: do not taxi, takeoff, or land on a blast pad. However, the extra pavement could save the day should you overrun the runway when landing in the opposite direction.

Runway blast pad or stopway

Displaced Threshold

A displaced threshold moves the landing point of the runway, which might be necessary if a tall obstacle blocks the normal approach path. For example, you might see displaced thresholds on runways where the final approach takes you over trees or tall buildings. You can taxi and begin your takeoff roll in the area before a displaced threshold, but you cannot land. 

Displaced thresholds are shown with white arrows that lead up to the normal threshold markings. Remember that a runway with a displaced threshold will have a shorter length available for landing than it does for takeoff. 

Runway Aiming Point Markings

Aiming points are a visual guide to tell the pilot where to aim their touchdown.

The aim points are two broad stripes or boxes on either side of the centerline, 1,000 feet beyond the landing threshold.

Touchdown Zone Markings

Touchdown zone markings are only found on runways with precision approaches. These are sets of one, two, or three bars arranged symmetrically on either side of the centerline. They provide distance information in 500-foot increments. 

Runway designation marking

Side and Shoulder Markings

Some runways need help standing out from their background. Side stripes are required on precision approach runways. They are solid white stripes running the length of the runway on both edges.

Some runways may also have shoulder markings. These are diagonal yellow stripes that demark pavement not to be used for any purpose: you cannot taxi, takeoff, or land on these areas. The stripes simply provide contrast to differentiate the runway edge from the surrounding terrain.

Other Runway Markings

There are other markings painted on some runways. Generally, however, anything else will be used as an aid when taxiing down a runway or to augment signs located next to the runway.

For example, a runway with LAHSO (Land and Hold Short Operations) will have hold short bars marked across it. To make the holding point as obvious as possible, the crossing runway or taxiway designation will also be marked with signs. The signs may also have surface-painted markings to make the area more prominent. 

Runway Closed Marking

Finally, a closed runway will be marked with a large X or cross on each end. The yellow cross may be painted over the designation marking area for permanent closures. A raised, lit yellow cross is placed on each end of the runway for temporary closures.

Detailed airport and runway marking information is found in the Aeronautical Information Manual, Section 2-3-2. https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/atpubs/aim_html/chap2_section_3.html 

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