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What is a Tarmac?

In America, a tarmac generally refers to an airplane runway.
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  • Written By: Michael Giuffre
  • Edited By: R. Kayne
  • Last Modified Date: 19 July 2014
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Like many great discoveries, Tarmac--a process for paving roads--came about quite by accident.

Near the end of the 18th century, a man by the name of John MacAdam first invented the method of "macadamizing" pavement by adding a layer of crushed gravel to surface a road. However, over time the gravel tended to grind and disintegrate. While it was fine for carriages and horses, newly invented motor cars would turn up huge dust clouds and send rocks flying from beneath their wheels.

Then, as luck would have it, British businessman E. Purnell Hooley was passing a tarworks factory in 1901, when he reportedly noticed a barrel of tar had spilled over the macadamized roadway. Someone had dumped gravel on the tar to cover it, and in traveling over this section of road, Hooley observed there was far less dust.

Based on this discovery, Hooley set out to make his own pavement mixture and launched a company to sell it. The company was Tar Macadam, and after changing hands in 1905, "Tarmac" became a huge success.

Tarmac is a registered trademark, yet has become a widely used term to describe any kind of paved road. Many people use the term to refer to an airplane runway, due to the fact that Tarmac was used extensively to construct runways during World War II. To this day, any large paved area at an airport is commonly referred to as a tarmac, whether it was paved with Tarmac or not.

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Americans use the term "blacktop" to refer to tarmac, due to its color; though they use the term "tarmac" sparingly, and usually in reference to an airport runway. Brits, however, still commonly use the term to refer to any paved road or surface.

Today, tarless asphalt mixtures have largely replaced Tarmac, though many roads, airport aprons, and runways are still referred to as "tarmacs."

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Discuss this Article

anon268495
Post 13

Tarmac is not widely used on roads any more, or ramps. That material is known as asphalt. Most large airports actually use concrete. Some county rural roads are actually paved with a tarmac like, or chip and seal like material over crushed rock.

The use of the term "Tarmac" shows the general lack of intelligence, and a willingness to repeat whatever term the media likes to invent. Many journalists tend to make blunders like this because they do not understand their subject matter, and/or are too lazy to properly research it.

anon84675
Post 11

Hey, this is anon40783 again.

I no longer work at the airport (it was a long time ago that I posted that comment), but I'm still in security (working on a naval establishment in Australia).

I assure you that, at Australian airports at least, all manner of staff and personnel who work in aviation are quite content to refer to all the surfaces that a plane might reside on collectively as a 'tarmac'.

We do occasionally use other terms, but we don't perceive it as dumb or uneducated to use a term that isn't technically valid by definition.

It's something of an established custom to associate an area with a word when the area was originally called by the name of the material it was composed of.

Think of the J in PB and J. Americans call it peanut butter and jelly, and we call it jam. It's not dumb to call it jelly, even though you're technically not eating gelatin with your peanut butter.

Bandit
Post 10

To add to my other posts (as anon78276 & 83012), "tarmac" is a material, *not* a place.

anon83012
Post 9

To "anon82548": No one said asphalt is not used on airports. Of course it is, and in the manner you stated. "Tarmac" is not "asphalt" -- similar, but different! The term "tarmac" is only used by the clueless when talking about modern and/or US airports. The proper terms are: ramp, taxiway, runway.

anon82548
Post 8

Asphalt is indeed used on airports, people. It depends on the airport and surface and how heavy a plane can be to use a specific airport. Most major airports use concrete because of how heavy the big planes are, 747,787, or military c-5. Smaller airports use asphalt because it's very cheap and acceptable for lighter weight airplanes!

anon78276
Post 7

To "anon40783": you are *not* correct. It is "uneducated" to use the term "tarmac" to refer to modern airport surfaces, especially in the USA.

I'm a pilot and I can tell you that nothing makes a reporter/person sound dumber than to use the term tarmac, and I can also guarantee you no pilot, controller, or anyone else in aviation will ever use the term "tarmac" -- period!

roger97
Post 6

I thought this article was very informative. I read an article on airline courtesy and came across the word tarmac, I had heard years ago that tarmac was no longer a valid term; so I looked it up and somehow got to wisegeek and in turn became completely enlightened. I did sign-up for the wisegeek newsletter and am so excited. Thank you for the opportunity. Janet

anon40783
Post 4

I work at an airport as an aviation screener (security) and I can happily tell you that it's not just reporters who refer to airside areas as the tarmac.

Think of it as a custom; the meaning of the word has essentially changed to reflect the nature of the area itself, not what materials the runway is composed of.

Security, check-in staff, baggage handlers and even the pilots and cabin crew from the aircraft refer to it as the tarmac both on the radio and in official reports whenever there's an incident worth reporting.

Their use of the term has nothing to do with being uneducated. I'm sure that more than a few of the people who use the term tarmac have at one point or another seen articles such as this, but they don't make a fuss about it and start juggling taxiways, airways and by-the-ways when they try to describe something to somebody.

vpl52
Post 2

Tarmac is highway asphalt. Any commercial airliner rolling onto this surface would most likely quickly sink into this flexible material. Airport runways, taxiways and aprons are made with reinforced concrete often more than 12 inches thick. I believe Dan Rather at CBS news started using this word as an airport surfacing material. And it is probably too late to educate todays' journalists to these facts. I agree with anon15199 that reporters often just repeat what they hear without really considering what the words really mean.

anon15199
Post 1

It's rather uneducated to refer to elements of an airport system as a 'tarmac'. There are runways for takeoffs and landings, taxiways for getting to and from them and aprons for loading planes. I usually write off a reporter that uses 'tarmac' in a news story as one who doesn't do their homework to find out the proper location on the airport.

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