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Why Airports Rename Runways When the Magnetic Poles Move

For many years, pilots heading into or out of Wichita Eisenhower National Airport in southeast Kansas have had three runways to select from: 1L/19R, 1R/19L, and 14/32. Now, at the orders of the FAA, the airport will spend a whole lot of 1000’s of to offer itself a makeover. Workers will repaint these large numbers at the ends of every runway and exchange copious signage. Pilots and air visitors controllers will research new reference manuals and method plates, all up to date to mirror an airport whose three runways have been renamed. World, meet 2L/20R, 2R/20L, and 15/33—which occur to be the similar runways which were welcoming planes since 1954.

This shouldn’t be a “What’s in a name?” scenario. The runways could also be the similar sweet-smelling stretches of tarmac they’ve all the time been, however the world round them has modified. Well, the magnetic fields round the world have modified. The planet’s magnetic poles—the factors that compasses acknowledge as north and south—are all the time wandering about. The magnetic North Pole (versus the geographic one, which does not transfer) shifts by as a lot as 40 miles a yr, and is steadily headed from someplace over Canada towards Russia.

That’s an issue, as a result of most runways are named for his or her magnetic headings. Take Wichita’s 14/32. First off, as a result of planes can land or take off from both course, you’ll be able to consider it as two runways: 14 and 32. (Pro tip: Pilots say “one-four” and “three-two,” not 14 and 32.) If you’re taking a look at a compass, one finish is about 140 levels off of north, counting clockwise. The different finish is 320 levels off. For simplicity’s sake, the headings are rounded to the nearest 10, and dropped to 2 digits. So in the event you’re trying down at Wichita Eisenhower, runway 14/32 is the one operating from the northwest to the southeast. The airport’s different runways, 1L/19R and 1R/19L, work the similar method: The 1 means one finish of the runway is 10 levels off north, the 19 means the different finish is 190 levels off. They share numbers as a result of they run parallel to 1 one other. That’s why they’ve letters: The L and R stand for left and proper, respectively that means west and east.

That makes issues simple for pilots, particularly in the event that they’re newbies at the airport in query. When they get the order to land at runway 20R, they’ll simply choose it out and ensure they’re correctly lined up for landing.

But these numbers, painted in the 1950s, are not correct, a minimum of not in response to the magnetic navigation instruments that industrial plane nonetheless use. The FAA is aware of all about these itinerant poles, and often evaluates runway designations to verify they’re nonetheless correct. Things solely change when the compass studying shifts a specific amount. Say the pole shifts such that the heading of 258 levels is definitely 259 levels. That nonetheless rounds to 260, and the runway would nonetheless be referred to as 26. But if the compass studying goes from 258 to 254, you’re now taking a look at runway 25.

And so, any given yr, it’s doubtless that a minimum of one or two airports must escape the white paint. (Because the runway designations are rounded, it takes a good quantity of motion to set off a change, and never each airport hits that time at the similar time.) In 2013, Oakland International’s runways modified from 27 and 29 to 28 and 30. In 2009, the UK’s Manchester International rechristened 6L/24R as 5L/23R.

So what occurs in the event you don’t hassle altering the runway designations as a result of it’s such a headache to repaint every little thing, change each signal, edit all the paperwork, and discover the cash to do it? “The big-picture answer is probably nothing,” says John H. Mott, who runs the Advanced Aviation Analytics Institute for Research at Purdue University and has a industrial pilot’s license. These of us are used to minor deviations, and except an airport has two runways which have practically similar orientations, they shouldn’t get overly confused.

But the FAA, which obsesses over security, doesn’t very like “probably,” and any confusion can result in potential security hazards. You may throw off pilots who use the runway alignment as a strategy to confirm the accuracy of their magnetic heading indicator earlier than takeoff, says Doug Moss, a industrial pilot and aviation guide.

Moreover, you don’t need to make it tougher, or extra complicated, to make use of that instrument to confirm they’re on the appropriate runway. Both Moss and Mott level to the 2006 crash of Comair Flight 5191 in Lexington, Kentucky. When the pilots tried to take off from runway 22 as a substitute of the for much longer 26, they ran off the finish of the tarmac, killing 49 of the 50 folks aboard. National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded that the crew didn’t test they have been in the proper spot.

When it involves industrial aviation, something that reduces the probabilities of such a horrible mistake is welcome, even when it means a pile of labor. So Wichita Eisenhower will escape the paint and name the signal store, and its pilots will be taught to like their new houses, 2L/20R, 2R/20L, and 15/33.


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