Best Of The Web: Why Not Circular Runways?


In the early days of aviation, a crosswind landing was kind of an unknown thing. That’s because flying fields were large enough squares or circles to point the airplane directly into the wind or takeoff for landing. That standard persisted well into the 1930s until paved runways became more or less standard, at least at big airports.

But the concept of the circular runway, a segment of which would always be pointed upwind, surfaces from time to time as it does in this BBC video with Dutch aviation expert Henk Hesselink of the Netherlands Aerospace Centre. Fat chance it will ever happen, but it’s amusing nonetheless to consider the possibilities.

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  1. The article and video fail to answer a lot of questions that come to mind. What would the radius of such a circular runway need to be in order to fulfill all of the logistical and safety requirements for large heavy airliners and provide the stated utility of handling the traffic of four straight runways?

    Approach and departure procedures would change and I’m not quite sure how that all would work. Instrument landing procedures in particular seem really impractical with this kind of setup, but maybe I’m not thinking of some obvious solution.

    It would certainly be a new experience to land on a sloped and curved runway, I’d think it would feel a bit like a crosswind landing (you’d have to hold the outside wing up with aileron and perhaps a bit of opposite rudder to stay on the curved centerline) and it seems like there might be significant opportunities for catching a wingtip, but maybe not, assuming the runways were sufficiently wide.

    I’m not going to hold my breath for this but it is an interesting concept.

  2. Seaplane pilots have been landing and taking off on “circular runways” for almost a century. They are called confined area takeoff/landings. On water of course the skidding moment less noticeable but certainly uncomfortable off a hard surface runway feeling like going out of control. Only solution is make a high banked bowl similar to a automotive racetrack, essentially resulting in a coordinated turn. – “Gold Seal” CFI

  3. Aerodromes were still around in the early ’70s. My instructor took me to one. When we came to the field, there were no marked runways on the grass field. He taught me to listen, look and enter in the downwind leg. Announce the landing direction by compass points “…landing to the southwest.” and point it into the wind. Alas that airport now has paved runways but it worked, and was surprisingly orderly. Unlike a recent experience at a low traffic resort where we had 5 airplanes taking off or landing on RW 6 and our intrepid inbound suddenly announced a 2 mile final for RW 24. He was notified by several a/c that the winds were favoring 6 and 6 was the active, he announced a 1 mile final and nearly hit a CAP departure on his way to landing downwind and against the traffic flow. I’d take that aerodrome any day if they still existed.

  4. One of the dumbest ideas ever. It might be fine for small planes with low landing speeds. But modern jet airliners are not designed to “corner” going around a curve. And the size of the runway circle to make the curve a lot less of an issue, would end up making the circle so huge it would take up an unacceptable amount of real estate.

  5. Note to All, especially Art Wesley…
    “Aerodromes” STILL exist in the world. A few of them anyway. In the old Soviet system, DOSAAF (training) airfields were all large grass fields. They were not paved, only grass. The tires used on small training aircraft such as the Yak-52 were rather intolerant of paving. Not only could you take off in any direction, but your tires lasted much longer. Yak-52’s that were not converted to Cleveland wheels flying in the USA would average about 200 landings before their tires had to be replaced. A few of these airfields are still in use for training; I think Chaika, the former DOSAAF airfield on the west side of Kiev is still in operation. I have landed a helicopter at some DOSAAF airfields in Belarus in the mid 1990’s, but don’t know if they are still operational. BTW, my login name means “Colonel of aviation” in Russian… Lots of personal experience in that part of the world…

    • Whereas Pacific Western declined to put Hercules airfreighters into God’s Lake Narrows in NW ON/NE MB.

      Pair of brothers from Europe had built a quite good runway except for the proximity of a rock outcrop about the middle, didn’t have money to blast it out.

      They were running a fishing lodge, they’d be old by now.

  6. This same proposal was floated in the 1960s in Flying magazine–again, from a British source.
    In addition to the problems of a curved runway and constantly changing crosswind components, consider trying to land in low visibility–the runway lights curve away from the aircraft. It’s bad enough trying to DRIVE in low visibility, can you image a touchdown speed of 120 knots on a curved runway and a half mile visibility? How about the lack of approach lights–AND lack of PAPI lights?
    This thing comes from Britain–the place that practically INVENTED low-minimum landings–can you imagine landing in very low visibility and ceilings, no PAPI lights, no “autoflare”–no precision extended glideslope?

    No thank you–file this one with “flying cars”, battery powered airplanes–some ideas NEVER die!

    P.S.–on the GOOD side, how about takeoffs? It would offer an unlimited runway for takeoff–“Tower, BA ****–we’re a little heavy today, how about once more around the track?”

    • Right, could use that extra runway length.

      IFF weather good, no slipperiness, no wind, …

      Well, the whole thing is nonsense, including that needed banking of surface changes with speed, most airplane tires are not meant for constant turning.

  7. Well, back when Allied forces were training pilots in Canada for WWII in Europe, there were many airfields built with a triangle of runways.

    You can see at least two of those runways at places like Abbotsford CYXX and Victoria CYYJ, third may be a taxiway now.

    I’ve seen several of the remains of triangle layouts in BC and AB when evaluating airports.

    Many of those airports had at least one runway greatly lengthened since built, typically another kept usable for crosswinds, but the third turned into a taxiway.

    Many airports have prevailing winds, often from the west. Lethbridge AB predominantly from the west but I presume the north wind blows some days in winter.
    YVR has two long runways oriented east-west, one shorter cross runway (cold air from the north tends to come through the Fraser Canyon and out the valley so is prevailing the opposite direction).
    A bit south, BLI may get northeasteries in winter as that cold air spills across the border into Ferndale at least.
    Points for identifying the model of old twin aircraft shown.

  8. A slow moving light aircraft that can land without substantial banking on a circular runway would be fine. I fly seaplanes and as Mr. Elves said a confined area landing or takeoff is a normal maneuver as long as the confined area isn’t very small. However, the amount of land required for larger, higher speed aircraft would be significantly more and it would be much simpler and less expensive to provide multiple runways than a circular runway.

  9. Nearly 10 times the amount of asphalt than a standard runway. Not to mention the infrastructure of under the runway access for automobiles, service, maintenance , etc.

    Not well thought out at all.

  10. Never happen in the US. The NTSB and the FAA already think most pilots can’t maneuver their airplanes ( pt121 ops usually prohibit circling approaches). Check the last SAFO issued by the FAA on visual approaches. This airport configuration would drive the NTSB absolutely nuts!

  11. A lot of that (old) concept is contradictory. If you really want to use it with 3 A/C at once, that will not mix with the promise to “take-off and land in any direction” as that will require every airplane to use a specific position (unless you match departures going in three different directions which is pretty unlikely to work out even at a large airport). While the banked runway would eliminate skidding, a banked airplane will have less lift at a time it is needed most. The incline/tilt required is dependent on speed, car speedways often have increasing tilt towards the outside. That won’t work for aircraft due to wingtip clearance requirements. Another unsolved problem would be that where you exit that circle on departure depends a lot on your weight, so would you start your take-off roll to leave at a pre-determined exit point or rather have a larger possible exit area? You’d need a lot of obstacle clearance all around to ensure that engine-out departures have a uniform obstacle clear surface from which to proceed (where?).