There have been many incidents where pilots landed or attempted to land the aircraft on a wrong surface (for example Continental 1883 and Air Canada 759). Are there any tips for pilots to avoid that? Especially during nights or low visibility scenarios.

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    $\begingroup$ You might find this interesting: skybrary.aero/index.php/Runway_Identification $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 1, 2020 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ Can you point out a particular accident that happened when a pilot landed on a taxiway? Usually these don't result in accidents, they are classified as "pilot deviations" or incidents. I don't know of any "accident" caused by landing on a taxiway... There have been accidents involving landing aircraft coming down on top of, or running into aircraft on the runway during low visibility... $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Jul 1, 2020 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ Closely related $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented Jul 1, 2020 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ @VvV Please don't hesitate to roll back if you don't like my edit! $\endgroup$
    – bogl
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ I think this website should provide interesting reading for you: skybrary.aero/index.php/Inappropriate_use_of_Runway_or_Taxiway . I will not create an answer here, because I don't have the time to spare to copy-paste what you can find there. In particular, look into the document under "Further Reading" (direct link: skybrary.aero/bookshelf/books/4058.pdf ) $\endgroup$
    – bogl
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 11:07

2 Answers 2


During daytime and good visibility, it should be pretty obvious that runway markings are white and taxiway markings are yellow. Runways have the runway designator in big white numbers at the end and a dashed centerline, while taxiways have a narrow continuous yellow centerline. enter image description here

During nighttime, you will notice that runway lights are white or yellowish while taxiway lights are green (center) end blue (edge). Additionally, many runways have approach lighting, which taxiways obviously do not.

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During low visibility, you won't be trying to identify the runway visually, since you will be performing an instrument approach, which will usually take you all the way to the threshold. For non-precision approaches, where some visual maneuvering is required, the information above regarding markings and lights apply equally.

In addition, taxiways are generally narrower than runways. While many runways do have parallel taxiways that run for the full length of the runway, in many cases the taxiways will have a few bends or be at a slight angle, whereas the runway will be completely straight and wider.

You should always study aerodrome charts and familiarize yourself with the airport layout before attempting to land at an airport. When doing so, pay attention to the airport layout, and try to notice any areas where confusion is likely (such as long straight taxiways that run parallel to a runway). If you come prepared, and pay attention to the details mentioned above, you should be home safe.

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    $\begingroup$ Dusseldorf Tower: “Taxiway Alpha to Romeo to X-ray. Why are you confused, have you ever flown to Dusseldorf? British Airways pilot: “Twice, in 1944, but it was dark, and I didn’t land.” $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 6:13

ExpediteDescent has done an excellent job of describing how pilots distinguish runways and taxiways. In addition to what he has posted, I would like to add that it boils down to situational awareness and proper prior planning. Runways and taxiways are very well identifiable from there markings, lights, and signs. And, only specially equipped aircraft with pilots who have received special initial and recurrent training and certification are allowed to land on a runway that they can not visually identify the runway environment. Aviation safety is built on redundancy. So, identification is not left up to chance.

For instance:

  • The markings, signs, and lights for runways are distinctly different from those of taxiways.
  • Runways are named and listed according to their magnetic heading/ground track
  • During taxiing, pilots should check their magnetic compass and Directional Gyro/Heading Indicator against the known headings of identified taxiways.
  • Pilots should always check their magnetic compass and Directional Gyro/Heading Indicator prior to takeoffs and landings to ensure they are lined up with the correct runway.
  • Different runways of the same airport will have different runway lead-in lights (MASLR, ALSF, etc). Which type of leads in lights used will be indicated in charts, diagrams, and chart supplements.
  • Runways will usually have visual vertical guidance equipment next to them. Which side of the runway the equipment is on will usually be indicated in charts, diagrams, and chart supplements.
  • Even during good visibility, pilots can use ILS or RNAV equipment to double check they are landing on the correct runway.
  • Plenty of panel mounted and handheld electronics have the option to show the extended centerline of a chosen runway. I personally use this feature to double check the runway alignment of the airport on each landing. Especially those at unfamiliar airfields. It is as simple as hitting OBS on the Garmin and dialing in the magnetic heading of the desired runway.
  • Plenty of panel mounted and handheld electronics have the option to show the aircraft’s GPS derived position relative to their ground location on the map.
  • Plenty of panel mounted and handheld electronics have the option to show the aircraft’s GPS derived position relative to their ground location on sectionals, charts, and airport taxi diagrams. Many call this geo-referencing. I believe Garmin has trademarked the name SafeTaxi for this feature.
  • The airport taxi diagrams and chart supplements list areas on the airport surface where there might be confusion or a preponderance of error of mistaking one airport surface for another. These are labeled and described as Hot Spots for the pilot to exercise increased diligence.

These various methods and their redundancies work. Case in point: My local airport decided to build a longer runway parallel to their existing runway. They designated the old runway as a second, main taxiway. The configuration is new runway on the East, old (main outbound) taxiway on the West, old runway/new (main inbound) taxiway in the center. All running North-South. They still maintain the old runway as if it were still an active runway. They just changed the markings, signs, and lights. They have even had an opportunity to use the old runway/new taxiway as an emergency landing surface when the new/actual runway was shut down due to a wheels up belly landing. Since the new and the old runways are identical except for their markings, signs and lights, and they both start right next to each other on the North end, it would be very easy to mistake one for another. Through situational awareness and the redundancies listed above, that does not happen.

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    $\begingroup$ "Runways are named Andrew listed according to their magnetic heading/ground track", but I've called my George! I will hold him and pet him and take off from him. Actually, that looks like your train of thought jumped track right in the middle. Want to revisit that and/or make a further explanation to the non-pilots in the room? $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 10:58
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    $\begingroup$ @FreeMan - Darn spellcheck. That should be “Runways are named and listed according to their magnetic heading/ground track”. Thanks. I did not catch that Apple had changed what I had typed. $\endgroup$
    – Dean F.
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 12:59
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    $\begingroup$ I realized that was probably the problem. Right after I hit <enter> on my comment. I figured I'd leave it since I was pulled out a good dad joke so early in the morning. ;) $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented Jul 2, 2020 at 13:02

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