When I was a kid, I didn’t like going to sleep early and clearly remember having FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). No wonder then when my mother asked me to pick a book one time when we were at the bookstore, I locked on the “What Happens At Night”. It told the story of street clearers, bakers, and newspaper printers who all have to work through the night. It’s one of my favorite children’s books ever.
Everyone’s been to the airport as a passenger. You are familiar with checking in, going through security and possibly passport control, then enjoying some duty-free shopping or food in the lounge, and boarding your flight at the designated gate. As a pilot your experience is different.
Pilots and crew usually board the plane the same way passengers do, just a little earlier. Pilots proceed to start up aircraft systems and program the Flight Management System. Eventually, the plane pushes back, taxis to the runway, and takes off.
But airports can be busy places. Like roads for cars, airports have their own traffic rules and signs. Moving around has to be coordinated by ground control: a traffic jam is not something that can be allowed to happen, and any traffic accident on the ground, even the most minor one, would cost millions of dollars in repairs and delays and lost revenue.
Here we will talk mostly about a commercial airport. An airport is usually one just large slob of asphalt and concrete, divided into several areas. Often runways are made of ashalt and the taxiways and apron are made of concrete.
An airport will obviously have one or more runways for take-off and landing. Runways are labeled by (more-less) their heading, rounded to the lowest ten. A runway facing heading 120 will be labeled runway 12. So will a runway facing heding 121.
Most runways can be used both ways, so they will have a label on both ends, and that heading will differ by 18 (180 degrees). So the other side of runway 12 is 12+18=30. In United States, runway 9 will be labeled 9, but everywhere else a leading zero will be added to make it 09. There are no leading zeros for double-digit runways, so it’s runway 27, not 027.
At airports that have more than one parallel runway, runways will be labeled left (L), right (R) and center (C). So you might have a runway 27L and 27R or even 28L, 27C and 27R. These labels are printed at the beginning of the runway in large letters.
Runways have turnoffs to taxiways, high speed or otherwise, and aircraft should get off the runway at the earliest safe turnoff to free the runway for other aircraft.
Taxiways are roads you take around the airport to get to places, from the apron to the runway and the other way. You do it by following a center yellow line, or at night the green lights (at night edges are illuminated in blue light).
You can’t just ride around the airport whichever way you like. Typically, you are told the exact route to take from wherever you are going. Taxiways are labeled by letters and numbers. For now, it’s probably enough to remember that yellow on black is the taxiway you are on, and that directional signs are the opposite, black on yellow.
Some airports have actual speed limits for taxiways, but in general, a maximum speed of 30-40 knots is observed and considered safe.
Aprons, colloquially known as the tarmac, are places where aircraft are parked, unloaded or loaded, refueled, or boarded.
All kinds of crews work around the airport, also known as ground service. They include but are not limited to:
- Parking and pushback
- Cleaning and toilet waste
- Catering and water service
- Luggage crews
- Police, security and fire crews
There are other areas of the airport which include airport terminals, hangars, cargo areas, general aviation terminals, fire stations, etc.
Ground Control controls everything but the runway, which is controlled by the Tower Control. Tower control also controls the surrounding airspace. Each functions on its own radiofrequency. There are sometimes separate Approach and Departure Controls, which take responsibility beyond the immediate area around the airport.
Information about every airport can be obtained from multiple public sources. This includes information about runways, ILS and radio frequences, charts and other information. The site I use for basic airport info for X-Plane 11 is APXP.INFO which doesn’t have charts, but does have runways and navigation and radio frequencies, as well as ICAO/IATA code. Take a look at the information for Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport:
Airport charts are a bit harder to come by and are often not in public domain and have to be paid for.
As you can see, the “back-end” of an airport is quite different than the “front-end” you are accustomed to as a passenger. While as a pilot you won’t necessarily interact with all of the parts of the operation, you do need to be aware of all the activity around you and the rules by which it is governed. Most of the rules are standardized worldwide. There are some differences by continent and country, which then you also need to be aware of. Familiarizing yourself with the airport is part of the flight planning process.