So you want to flight sim? You’ve got the simulator, you’ve got an airplane but how do you get to a runway? If you read further and or watch the video, I’ll show you where to get airport charts, how to read taxiway signs, and then we’ll taxi to an active runway.
The first thing you’ll need to do to make any sense of this is to obtain an airport chart. Airnav is a great free source for U.S. airport charts. From the home page click airport and then type in the airport code of your choosing. You’ll be taken to the airport page and from there scroll down and the chart will be on your right. These charts are high quality PDF files that you can zoom and turn to your liking.
The next source you can use for charts is Navigraph. From their home page click products, then click features located on the right navigation menu. Navigraph offers moving charts that will track your aircraft as you taxi around the airport. These can be great for anyone that’s a beginner or pro.
With the chart in hand, you’ll notice that the taxiways are marked with letters. In order to communicate with ATC you are going to need to learn the phonetic alphabet. Not only when identifying your aircraft, but also in order to understand and repeat the taxi instructions to the controller.
Now let’s talk about the signs around the airport. You will see many of these signs in different combinations so it’s important to understand what they mean. The most common sign is the taxiway location sign. Anytime you see a letter with a black background and yellow square around it, this indicates the taxiway you are currently on. The photo on the left is letting us know we’re on alpha and tango is to our right. The middle sign is letting us know we’re on taxiway echo and papa is running left and right indicated by the arrows. The sign on the right reads that we’re on taxiway papa, uniform is to our left, right and runway 28 is to our right.
Anytime you see a large X on a taxiway or runway this is to let you know that the area is closed and not to be entered. The X might also be paired with a sign showing a circle and line. The example shown below is yellow but this sign can sometimes be red. Anytime you see these stay away from that area. You might confuse the X as a place to land a helicopter but helipads are clearly marked with a white or yellow H.
Some signs will clearly spell out where you are going. For example, a sign might say, South Cargo Ramp, Apron, FBO, or Military. These signs are letting you know that these areas are ahead. The terminals are usually marked by terminal or ramp number followed by the individual gate and stall numbers. Often near terminals, or the zones listed above, you will see small lanes that are for airport vehicles. These are not to be taxied on by aircraft.
Next, we’ll talk about runways. Whenever you see a red sign with numbers this is most likely a holding point. This is accompanied by the runway boundary line. This is the spot you will hold short of. Do not cross unless instructed to. Crossing this line means you are about to enter a runway. However, seeing these signs do not always mean you need to hold. Often times ATC will tell you it’s okay to cross a certain runway in the initial taxi instructions that they provide you with. The numbers on these signs represent the magnetic heading of the runway and also which side of the airport the runways are on. Below are also a few examples that incorporate the holding point sign and the taxiway location sign.
Another line you need to be aware of is the Instrument Landing System boundary line. This line will be found well before reaching the runway boundary line and only near runways that allow ILS approaches. An ILS approach is an approach that guides aircraft in during low visibility. Staying behind these lines when instructed is crucial for the approaching aircraft to remain on the approach. ILS boundaries can be indicated in several ways. The line on the ground. A sign with the same pattern as the painted line, CAT II / III, or sometimes just ILS. If ILS approaches are not active then you can safely move to the runway boundary line ahead.
Now to take a look at all this from above. From right to left, we have the runway holding position sign indicating runway 04 is at are left and runway 22 is on our right. Next we have an ILS boundary line, and finally, the runway holding sign telling you that you’re about to enter runway 04.
This leads me to talk about the markings on a runway and the signs you might see along the sides. The large yellow arrows are the blast pad area. You do not taxi or land on these. Sometimes ahead of the blast pad you will white arrows in the middle of the runway. This is called the displaced threshold and those can be taxied and taken off from. This is followed by the piano key looking markings which are called runway threshold markings. The number you see beyond the threshold is the runway designation marking. This is the magnetic heading of the runway. Next, are the touch zone markings. The solid ones being the aiming point. This is the zone where you want to try and land your aircraft. The next lines you see as you travel down the runway are marking the runway in 500-foot increments. You will also see black signs running parallel to the runway. These are similar to the 500-foot markings, the difference being they are telling you how many feet in thousands are left on the runway.
You might also see these raised boxes on the sides on runways. These are the Precision Approach Path Indicator lights, also known as PAPI lights. These guide you in on approach. With this style you want 2 red and 2 white. This tells you that you are correctly on the glide path. 4 red is too low, 4 white is too high, and 3 red or 3 white are letting you know that you are slightly too low or high.
Another sign you might see sometimes is the LAHSO sign. It stands for Land and Hold Short Operations. These are used when runways or taxiways intersect the runway you are on. You would hold short behind the line and this allows other traffic to land, takeoff, or cross in front of you on the intersecting runway or taxiway.
Now that we have a chart, phonetic alphabet and knowledge of the signs, let’s try and taxi to an active runway. Before calling ground it’s best to have a look at the chart and plan some possible routes to the runway. This will give you some extra familiarity with the airport grounds. When you’re ready give ground a call and they will clear you to taxi. In this case we’ve been given instructions to taxi to runway 28 via T, U, U1. Looking at the chart we’re already on T. We’ll travel slightly left around the bend and then turn right on U, passing U2 before reaching U1. The signs and taxiway paint will help guide as you taxi. It’s good practice to cross check your chart with the taxiway signs you are passing. This will assure that you are traveling the correct direction and allows you to quickly amend any mistakes with ATC before you get too lost. If the controller is not too busy they will also be watching and will inform you if you made any deviations. But do not rely on this and make sure to cross check.
All of this takes studying and practice but you’ll be a pro in no time! I recommend starting off at simple airfields like KSAN, or KSNA because they have minimal runways and simple taxiways. You might not want to start with an airport like Amsterdam. There you will find a jungle of taxiways and runways that can easily confuse a new sim pilot. But if you want to jump right in with a challenge by all means. If you do so online just make sure you pick a less busy time. Learning how to taxi during a scheduled ATC event might not be the best time to learn. Remember to have fun and mistakes are all part of the process.
Take those mistakes and grow, happy landings!