For most of us, the sight of blue lights and yellow lines outside an airplane’s window is the cue to turn our phones back on. For pilots, it’s more like a secret language—a language that is vitally important to safety and, increasingly, embedded with emerging technology.
I was very recently on a plane circling over LGA when I realized I had no idea what any of the patterns, colors, or letters on the runway really meant. Take the lighting, for example. In Dubai this month, Honeywell finished up installing what it describes as the very first all-LED runway lighting system; like the rest of the world, airports are giving up their inefficient lightbulbs. Meanwhile, I—the average clueless and/or terrified passenger—couldn’t tell you whether a light on the runway was LED or incandescent.
I wanted to know more about the mysterious language. A Wired article from last year gave a few hints, along with the amazing Tumblr Holding Pattern. And it turns out that the Federal Aviation Administration keeps public guidelines for all of these design elements online. After digging into the FAA’s list of documents and exploring in Google Earth, this is what I found.