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Landing a plane is widely accepted as the most difficult part of any flight, no matter what the landing conditions are. What do planes land on?

Most of the time, airplanes land at an airport on a firm, solid runway usually made of asphalt and concrete. Smaller airports might have runways or landing strips built of gravel, dirt, or grass. Certain airplanes use pontoons or floats to land on water and others use skis to land on ice and snow.

Flying a plane is never something that we would consider easy, no matter how experienced you are and how advanced modern aircraft have become. But ask just about any pilot, and they’ll tell you what landing is the hardest part. In this article, you’ll learn all about what planes land on including runways, water, snow and ice, and more. So sit back and get ready to learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about what planes land on.

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Table of contents


What Are Runways Made Of?

For the vast majority of us pilots out there and our readers, landings will almost always occur on a runway. Whether you’re flying commercially into an international airport, or landing your personal plane at the small local airport, you’ll likely be using a runway. Specifically designed to handle takeoffs and landings of various aircraft, runways are the landing surface of choice — and the only one most pilots will ever use.

So what are runways really made of? Are they just like a normal road that you drive on, or do they require a little more to them? Let’s take a look.

At most major airports, runways are constructed of concrete, asphalt, or a combination of the two. This surface is heavily reinforced with rebar or welded wire fabric, and the solid surface is constructed on top of a thick layer of coarse base stone. The actual concrete or asphalt surface that the planes land on is required to be at least 11 - 13 inches thick for smaller aircraft and 17 to 20 inches thick for larger aircraft.

Runways at smaller airports that you might fly your own personal plane into and out of can be made with less strict requirements. In some instances depending on how remote the airport is and the types of planes that it’ll be serving, the runways can be built something as simple as gravel, grass, or even just dirt. In any case, the key is having a long enough, flat enough, and smooth enough surface for the airplanes to safely make consistent landings.

At almost all airports, landing is heavily aided by the addition of airport and runway lighting. That’s because,  with these lights, it would be almost impossible for the pilots to see where they’re flying at night and safely make it to the runway and make a safe landing. Even in remote airports with grass or gravel runways, this lighting is essential and helps ensure safety and consistency among flights!

How Long Do Runways Last?

Runways, just like the roads you drive your cars on every day, need to be maintained and resurfaced on occasion. This is especially true with asphalt runways that sustain heavy traffic and go through various weather conditions. Runways that have to go through all four seasons’ worth of weather will naturally degrade much faster than other runways and will require resurfacing of the top coat every few years.

For runways in less busy airports or that don’t have to undergo as severe of temperature and weather conditions throughout the year, resurfacing might only need to be done every 10 to 12 years or so. It really depends on the type of airplanes used, the actual surface of the runway, the airport traffic, and the weather that the runways go through year after year.

Runways need full replacement if there is enough damage or wear and tear over time that has not been addressed. One example of this could be if a plane has a bad landing,or the landing gear doesn’t operate correctly and the plane severely damages the runway upon landing. Full runway replacement is a major undertaking that can cost millions of dollars and take a runway out of commission for weeks or even months.

That’s why it’s vital that runways are well maintained so that busy airports around the world don’t need to be taken entirely out of commission for a full replacement. What a headache!

Can Planes Land On Water?

In worst-case scenario emergencies, any plane technically can attempt a water landing if there is nowhere else to land. But most planes aren’t designed to do so and it can often be an incredibly difficult maneuver to pull off. Some planes, however, are designed to do exactly that. These types of planes are most commonly referred to as seaplanes or floatplanes, and their specialized design makes them able to operate solely from bodies of water.

These types of planes use either their fuselage to land on (and take off from) water, like a flying boat. Or they have large floats or pontoons affixed on their landing gear instead of the normal wheels and tires that you’d find on most planes. Their ability to float on the water makes them ideal for areas of the country and the world that are surrounded by water such as the coast and smaller port towns where there aren’t any runways present.

Can Planes Land On Snow And Ice?

Just as we mentioned above with the water example, attempting to land an aircraft on a big stretch of snow or ice can be done in the case of an emergency. But for most aircraft that are designed for normal runways, it likely wouldn’t go very well in the end. However, some planes are actually designed to operate on snow and ice. And just like above, it really comes down to the landing gear that the plane is outfitted with.

For planes to safely and consistently land on snow and ice, the landing gear needs to consist of very large skis instead of wheels and tires. The skis, similar to the ones you would go skiing down a mountain with except much larger, are designed to allow the plane to slide right along the top of the snow and ice. The special landing gear allows for smooth landing and makes it possible to fly into frozen areas of the world where other planes could not venture.

What Do Planes Land On In Remote Areas With No Runway?

The last major type of plane that we’ll look at in this article is the specialized ones that are designed to land pretty much, well, anywhere. These planes are known as bush planes and were designed to be able to travel to the most remote areas in the world and land where no other planes can land. Bush planes typically require specialized bush pilot training and some other modifications to the aircraft to make operation possible.

These planes typically have reinforced undercarriage, higher wing configurations to avoid bushes and trees on the ground, and of course, specialized landing gear. Bush planes most commonly have very large tires that can be used on different sorts of terrain. But they can also be outfitted with similar floats or skis to the other types of planes we already discussed above, depending on what they’re going to be landing on.

If you’re ever intending on flying into a super remote area that is undeveloped and has no real runway or any actual landing zone, you’ll likely need a bush plane and lots of experience!