News & Politics

Anatomy: Landing a Plane at Reagan National Airport

Why it's more complicated than landing at most airports.

Illustration by Chris Philpot.

Landing a plane at Reagan National Airport—a.k.a. DCA—is more complicated than at most other airports because of restricted airspace, noise regulations, and the fact that there’s just one runway long enough for large aircraft. Here’s what happens before the wheels touch down.

  • Until recently, all planes flying into DCA followed routes marked by small, World War II-era navigation towers on the ground. The towers send signals into the sky, creating “waypoints” for the planes to pass through during descent.

  • The waypoints—which appear every 15 to 20 miles along the route—mark elevation and speed targets that pilots aim to hit. At a waypoint above Great Falls, Virginia, for example, planes are supposed to fly at about 7,000 feet and no more than 250 knots.

  • Using the ground-based navigation towers requires planes to descend in a stair-step pattern—hitting one target, then slowing down and dropping to the next one.

  • This year, the Federal Aviation Administration began adding satellite waypoints, beginning at the airport and moving outward.

  • The new satellite waypoints allow the planes to descend on a smooth diagonal, which feels more comfortable to passengers and saves fuel.

  • All waypoints are identified by five-letter codes chosen by the FAA’s design-and-implementation office.

  • One of the 16 approach routes to DCA includes waypoints named for former Redskins—RYPIN, GIBBZ, SUNYJ, MONNK.

  • Another approach takes planes through WEEEE, WLLLL, NEVVR, FORGT, SEPII.

  • Roughly 10,000 feet above Dulles Airport is a waypoint that all planes approaching DCA from the west must pass through—called FRDMM.

  • DCA’s only long runway is still relatively short. It’s 6,869 feet long, while most runways at Dulles are at least 10,000 feet.

Fun Fact: About 850 planes take off and land at DCA each day, usually spending no more than 30 seconds on the runway—often far less.

This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.