You’re on your plane, flying to wherever. You’ve snagged a window seat and the flight attendant hasn’t said to keep your window shade down (sometimes they do; here’s why.). So you’re looking out the window as you’re taxiing.
You notice different signs, sometimes with letters, sometimes with numbers, sometimes both. Sometimes they’re yellow on black. Sometimes they’re black on yellow. And other times they’re totally different colors, like white on red or blue. Like these:
(PC: public domain)
Ever wonder what all those signs mean? What if I told you that if you knew what they meant, you’d know where on the tarmac you were and possibly where on it you’d be heading next? But before you learn the secret code, let’s get down to basics.
There are 2 different types of “roads,” if you will, that planes follow on tarmacs before they take off:
- Runways – According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, a runway is a “defined rectangular area on a land aerodrome prepared for the landing and takeoff of aircraft”. Runways may be a man-made surface or a natural surface.
- Taxiways – a path for aircraft at an airport connecting runways with aprons, hangars, terminals and other facilities. They mostly have a hard surface such as asphalt or concrete, although smaller general aviation airports sometimes use gravel or grass. Most airports do not have a specific speed limit for taxiing.
So runways are the long roads where you either start acceleration so your plane can take off, or what you initially touch down upon when you land. Taxiways are the roads that get your plane to/from the runway.
The signs along taxiways and runways
As you go past all these signs, you’ll notice there are more black and yellow signs than red or blue ones. The ones with letters represent a taxiway. The signs with numbers are representative of runways.
So if you see a black sign with yellow letters, that indicates you’re on the taxiway it identifies. So this picture was taken when the person was on taxiway Z:
Using the same photo above, a yellow sign with black lettering and a black arrow is a directional sign. It identifies the intersecting taxiways the aircraft is approaching, with an arrow indicating the direction to turn (Fun fact! Directional signs will always be on the left side of the taxiway before the intersection. FAA rule).
So going back to the photo above, we know this person was on runway Z, but we also know they were approaching runway 2340, which would be towards the right.
The meaning of a red sign for pilots is the same as it is for anyone else – CAUTION! STOP! They show entrances to runways or critical areas. Both aircraft and vehicles are required to stop at these signs until the control tower gives them clearance to proceed.
Once again going to the photo above, since we know that signs with numbers mean a runway, and the 12-30 is red, it means the pilot has to stop there because they’re about to cross runway 12-30. Once ATC gives them the OK, they can continue on their intended path.
Other signs you may see:
Stop Bar signs – white on blue background. The designation consists of the letter S followed by designation of the taxiway on which the Stop Bar is positioned. This sign is not standard (some airports use lights instead).
Frequency change signs – Usually a stop sign and an instruction for those in the cockpit to change to another radio frequency. These signs are used at airports with different areas of ground control.
FBO sign – A yellow airport sign that says “FBO” in black lettering, with an arrow on it. This directs the pilot to the destination for arriving aircraft (another FAA rule). “FBO” stands for “Fixed-Base Operators,” which are the companies at the airports that take care of fueling up the planes, tying them down, removing the baggage from the cargo area, etc. This is also a directional sign to where passengers will be able to disembark and enter the terminal.
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