As the state wraps up General Aviation Appreciation Month, let’s clear up one thing: Chances are good that 747 is not sitting on a “tarmac.”
Ed Gass, of Snohomish, wrote to the newspaper with this request: “Just a note to encourage The Herald to lead the way against the near constant and inappropriate use of the term ‘tarmac.’ I spent 38 years in the ‘business’ of air traffic control and never once used that term in the course of my work.”
Sure it’s a “cool sounding term,” Gass said. But that doesn’t make it accurate.
Tarmac is short for tarmacadam, which itself is a combination of tar and macadam — which is to say, a way of paving a road by using a tar binder.
A surveyor in the United Kingdom named Edgar Hooley accidentally discovered the method in 1901 while walking near an ironworks and noticing an unusually smooth stretch of roadway, according to a BBC-written history.
“He asked locals what had happened and was told a barrel of tar had fallen from a dray and burst open. Someone had poured waste slag from the nearby furnaces to cover up the mess. Hooley noticed this unintentional resurfacing had solidified the road — there was no rutting and no dust.”
It was a breakthrough. By 1902, Hooley had patented the tar-based process, and in 1903 he formed TarMacadam Syndicate Ltd., and registered Tarmac as a trademark.
There is still a Tarmac company, based in the UK, which through various mergers and buyouts traces a portion of its history — in addition to its famous name — back to Hooley.
So what are the right terms at an airport?
Gass fills us in: “At towered airports, surface areas are divided into two parts: non-movement areas and movement areas. Non-movement areas are defined as ramps or aprons and are not controlled by the tower. Movement areas are defined as taxiways and runways which are under the jurisdiction of the tower and are almost invariably surfaced with concrete.”
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