What do numbers on the runway mean?


Have you ever had a night flight when you can see the airport runway shining like a Christmas tree? Daytime flight landing may not look as charming, but you can see airport traffic signs and various signals in daylight.

Airport symbols, signs and runway numbers mean nothing at all to the passengers who are not interested in aviation. At the same time, it is a secret language for pilots used to safely operate the aircraft through the airport directed towards all the different runways. Consistent airport runway numbering in airports gives pilots of all nationalities clarity when landing and taking off in any airport in the world.

The giant numbers painted on the airport runways stand for the airport’s name and are called a heading.

The runway heading consists of two numbers between 1 and 36. This means the heading is based on the compass directions with 360 representing north, 90 – east, 180 – south, and 270 – west. Here is some work for math lovers. The numbers are rounded to the nearest ten to make it simpler. The last digit is dropped and each individual digit is pronounced. For example, a compass heading of 210 degrees would be written 21 and would be pronounced as two one. One more interesting thing, if the number consists of one digit, 0 (zero) is written in front of it to make it a two-digit one. One digit is 9 meters high and 3 meters wide, so the whole runway heading is 54 square meters. Can you imagine that it actually is the size of a two-bedroom apartment?

Every runway has two ends.  Each end is considered as a different runway even though it is the same actual runway surface. This is why the most runways have two numbers. The numbers at the opposite ends of the runway make up 180° angle. Moreover, aircraft can use one or the other direction to take off or land to take the advantage of the prevailing winds.

The next time you have a flight, no matter if you’re seated in business, economy class or stuck in the very last seats at the end of the plane, look out of the window at those giant numbers on the runway to make sure which direction you will be taking off.