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Strictly Speaking

Use Words Exactly to Avoid Confusion


Tarmac is short for Tarmacadam, a road surfacing material patented by Edgar P. Hooley in 1901. It is a perfectly legitimate word based on asphalt, the highest boiling point and least volatile mixture remaining after oil is distilled to remove the lower boiling point fractions. Straight off the first fraction from the well, oil is a mixture of naturally occurring organic compounds from methane to polynuclear aromatics.

As a driving surface for motor vehicles, tarmac is usually adequate, and served adequately for landing light planes, even the smaller, early commercial passenger aircraft. But tarmac is too soft to support the landing of larger commercial and military aircraft. The word itself defines when it (the word, not the material) should (and should not) be applied.
When the surface is tar + macadam, it is tarmac. When the road surface is sand and aggregated calcium silicate, it is concrete.

Modern runaways and taxiing areas are exclusively concrete. Because they are not as soft as their predecessor, tarmac, they are called hardstands.

Strictly speaking, no major airport in the world has landed or taxiied an aircraft on a tarmac surface in the last sixty-five years. Yet reporters are loathe to abandon a word that most listeners associate, generically, with a landing surface. As historian Will Durant once quipped, “Tradition sanctifies absurdity.”

If you want to make yourself some easy money, the next time you find yourself awaiting a flight, bet the passenger next to you than no flight will touch tarmac at this airport in the next five hours. They will check the descent paths, see an incoming 747 and say, “You’re on.” As soon as the plane hits the hardstands, collect your bet.

Your claim is based on a unarguably valid point. Heavy aircraft would sink into tarmac up to the engines. And when fire erupts from jet fuel, tarmac has the additional inconvenience of burning. Because it is already oxidized, the concrete of hardstands does not.  Read More 
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