Project Runway

By Renita Mollman, PE, LEED AP

In the beginning of flight, airfields were quite simple — nothing but large fields that allowed pilots to take off and land into the wind, no matter its direction. Like everything else in the aviation industry, though, airfields have evolved. Those large vacant fields have given way to to well-considered and complex concrete paths.

Airstrips and Runways

As aircraft evolved in the 1950s and air travel became a desired form of transportation for the general public, the simple grass landing strips would no longer suffice. Heavier aircraft with tail wheels that enabled ground steering forced the conversion of airstrips from grass and gravel to pavement capable of supporting the weight and technological advances.

Today, grass landing strips still dot the American landscape and serve rural air traffic well. Private, small community and small regional airports may be home to a single airstrip suitable for general aviation and corporate needs. Meanwhile, major cities and international airports boast long parallel and intersecting runways to serve larger commercial and cargo jets.

Navigational Aids

In the early days of flying, navigational aids were essentially non-existent. Pilots flew by looking out their cockpit window and navigating along the landscape. Once nighttime flying became necessary, particularly for the U.S. Postal Service, bonfires were lit from town to town to guide the pilots. In the early 1920s, beacons began to be placed on towers across the country at distances of every 15 to 25 miles, creating flight lines for pilots to follow.

Technology has come a long way from those early days. Complex ground lighting and highly reflective pavement markings, along with sophisticated GPS-based navigational aids and radar, enable easy identification of airports for approaching aircraft.


These advances added a measure of safety that did not exist in earlier days. With aircraft and airfields only beginning to grow, congested air traffic was not a concern. Before navigational aids, pilots simply circled an airport, checked for obstructions and traffic, then landed if the field was clear.

Over the years, safety became a driving force in airfield development. It is of utmost importance at commercial airports worldwide. Instrument landing systems guide pilots through inclement weather, while runways are pushed farther apart to accommodate larger aircraft. Standardized navigational aids combine with air traffic control systems to keep the traveling public safe as they arrive and depart.

The complexity of modern airfields means that any expansion, change or new development — regardless of size — requires a team with experience and understanding of how the facilities interact with pilots in flight, providing the necessary facilities, runways, taxiways, lighting, pavement markings and safety features to protect the traveling public and the investment of airlines and communities. Burns & McDonnell has been guiding airfield stakeholders through these processes for decades, and our expertise will see every project through to successful completion.

Did You Know ...

A Gibraltar Airport runway crosses a road used to travel from Gibraltar to Spain. When a plane lands or takes off, a stoplight and gates halt the road traffic to give arriving or departing aircraft the right-of-way. 

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