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Runway Markings and Airfield Landing Markers: Explained

As part of your flight training, you will learn about runway markings and airfield landing markers.

You might be surprised to learn that not all runways are created equal. Every single mark on the runway has a meaning. Today, we will work our way through and provide you with a quick guide to runway markings, and airfield landing markers explained in easy-to-understand terms.

The Numbers

Every officially approved runway in the world will be given a two-number code. This is not random or cryptic. It is all to do with direction, much like a compass. Adding a zero to the two numbers on the runway will give you the magnetic direction that the runway points to, rounded up to the nearest ten degrees.

So runway 27, in fact, points in the direction of 270° on your compass. Runway 18 points south (180°). A runway designated 05 points to 050° degrees.

You may also notice a letter. Either ‘L’ or ‘R.’ This is used for runways that point in the same direction and are parallel to each other.

Centerline Runway Markings

The centerline stripes indicate the exact center of the runway, and are something you should become closely acquainted with every time you make a landing. While in light training aircraft, you might have plenty of room within the runway. But in the future you might be flying a larger aircraft as a professional pilot, so your aircraft might not have quite as much space on either side.

The centerline stripes are 120 feet long, and there is a gap between them of 80 feet.

Why is this useful?

For a short field landing, particularly on your flight test, you need to land within 200 feet of a designated point. By nominating either a gap or a stripe (the combination of which add up to 200 feet), you can use them to hone your skills to put the wheels down where you want them.


PAPI stands for ‘precision approach path indicator’ lights. PAPI lights consist of 4 calibrated lights that provide pilots with a visual indicator of their aircraft’s position relative to where their flight path should be. Depending on the angle of approach, the pilot will see different colored lights to ensure that they are approaching correctly.

While during your training, you will be flying visually. These can give vital information. The lights indicate where you are in relation to a 3° glideslope.

If you can see two red and two white lights, you are precisely  where you should be positioned. If you see more red lights, that typically means you are too low, whereas if you see more white lights, that typically means you are too high.

It is worth remembering that these are used primarily by the big jets with a significant distance between the wheels and the cockpit. So, as you get closer to the runway, you may feel that you are too low or too high, but the PAPI system can help guide you.

As part of your FAA-mandated license requirements, you will have to fly to a commercial field with air traffic control where you will likely encounter PAPI’s.

Threshold Stripes

Threshold stripes or ‘piano keys,’ as pilots call them, can offer vital information. The number of stripes should tell you how wide the runway is.

Why is this important? All runways are wide enough for training aircraft.

Wide runways (and narrow runways) create an interesting optical illusion. If you are used to flying in a single field, then a wide runway can give you the impression that you are a lot lower than you really are. Likewise, a narrow runway can make you think you are higher when in fact, you are very close to the ground.

Runway widths vary by location, and as you will be flying to different airports as part of your flight training, it is important that you carefully note how runway width can influence your landing.

The Touch Down Zone

Have you ever noticed a separate section of horizontal markings that are beyond the start of the runway? These are the touchdown zone markings or “TDZ” for short. While you might think it makes sense to land as early as possible on the runway, these markings will be important once you embark on your career.

They are where you are supposed to put your wheels. Any sooner or lower (especially in a big aircraft), you run the risk of catching the landing gear on a fence.

End Lights

During your flight training, there will be times that you might land a little longer than you intended to.

Luckily, airport authorities give us a few clues.

The last 900 feet of the runway will be punctuated with red lights. These lights act as a final cue that you are approaching the end of the runway. If you have not landed and seen that the runway centerline has turned red, then it is time to make a missed approach. This will be one of the first things that your instructor teaches you.

Edge Lights and Markings

Runway edge markings and lights can look surprisingly similar to the centerline, especially in low light conditions or bad visibility. During your flight training, you will learn to read instruments that show you precisely where the runway’s center is.

If you pick a flight school that operates in areas with consistently good weather, this should not be a problem you will have to face.

The above touches on some of the things you will learn about airports during your flight training. At California Aeronautical University, you will learn the theoretical knowledge to accompany your handling skills. Not only will you be able to put the aircraft down ‘on the numbers,’ you will have detailed knowledge of what those numbers and airfield markings actually mean. With a team of experienced instructors, CAU operates in areas known for good weather, so you should be able to spot that runway and the markings from miles away!

Contact us today to learn more.


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