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What the Numbers at the End of Runways Actually Mean

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Diane Thomason
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The numbers at the end of a runway aren t just there to help pilots see where they re supposed to land.

They actually mean something important: the runway s degree from magnetic north.

This video from Atlas Obscura explains.

The video is only about a minute long, so it s worth a watch, even though the cat s out of the bag here—each runway number represents its degree, labeled one through 36—from magnetic north, rounded down to the lowest two digit number.

So runway 12, for example, is 120 degrees from magnetic north, and runway 36 is, well, 360 degrees from magnetic north, and it means you re pointed directly north.

That all said, magnetic north is known to shift, and move great distances over the years, which then makes all of those numbers completely wrong when it does.

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Diane Thomason
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