The Endless, Circular Runway Idea Won’t Happen—But Maybe It Should
If airports are hellscapes, one man has a utopian vision for the future of flight.
Henk Hesselink wants to reshape commercial aviation by reshaping the runway into a huge circle. The senior R&D manager at the Netherlands Aerospace Centre calls his idea the Endless Runway. He argues it’s just as safe as conventional runways and could even cut delays—if the rest of the world is willing to embrace a new way.
“So 100 years ago, if you were flying, you would go to the airfield, someone would pick up your bags, and then bring it to the aircraft, you would walk to the aircraft and there would be a strip where you would take off,” Hesselink says. “Nothing has changed.” Aviation, he says, is stuck in the past, because no one has bothered to question the basic setup.
Before going any further, it’s important to note the circular runway ain’t gonna happen, at least not the way Hesselink pitches it. Even if it’s the better way to fly—and it’s no sure bet—mustering the necessary political and financial capital to rebuild even a fraction of the world’s more than 40,000 airports just won’t take off (sorry).
That’s no reason, however, to dismiss the circular runway. Hesselink’s concept depends on streamlining the way aircraft approach airfields, something that increasingly sophisticated navigational tools could make possible. And if passenger jets never touch down on the big circle, Hesselink says, a mini-version of the runway could work great for drone deliveries—securing it a place in the future of flight.
The high-flyin’ Dutchman’s argument goes like this: A circular runway cuts down on scary takeoffs and landings involving crosswind, which the National Transportation Safety Board cites as a leading factor in weather-related accidents. Because the runway’s a circle, there are always two spots where a pilot can take off or land into the wind, where planes perform best.
A circular runway could also boost airport capacity, a big deal considering the number of global flights should double by 2030. Hesselink’s calculations show that the setup could handle the air traffic of four conventional runways, while taking up the space of three runways. And since planes can take off and land from any direction (in calm winds), that could potentially cut down on time they might otherwise take en route or circling above the airfield, burning fuel.
“We hope to accomplish a new way of thinking, just to shake up the world a little bit,” Hesselink says.
OK, a lot. Just a few things would have to happen before we all zip around in circles: The International Civil Aviation Organization would study the concept; its council would adopt standards and recommended practices. Each member state’s regulatory body would approve and adopt regulations. (“We are not familiar with the concept and therefore have no comment,” an FAA spokesman said.) New airports would likely have to put up billions of dollars in bonds. Existing ones could do the same to uproot existing infrastructure and bend it into a circle.
Oh, and the world’s airlines would have to replace much of their fleets, once manufacturers had spent years and millions of dollars developing new flight management systems and maybe even new aircraft—the banked surface of the runway could scrape the engines of planes like Boeing’s 747. Then it’s just a matter of training pilots to fly those new planes into and out of those redesigned airports.
Hesselink isn’t the first to suggest the circular setup. In 1919, the art director of what was then Popular Science Monthly proposed building circular tracks above buildings in cities for air travel. In the 1960s, the US Navy ran flight tests on circular tracks in Arizona. But there’s good reason the idea hasn’t caught on.
“Although it is important to keep an open mind on new ideas (or in this case an old idea newly revisited), I don’t see anything in the ‘endless runway’ concept that suggests that it would be worth all the cost and effort involved,” says Geoff Gosling, an aviation consultant.
So yeah, your next flight—and every one after that—will almost certainly take off and land on the runways you’re used to. But Hesselink’s idea taps into some of the ways aviation is more likely to morph in the coming decades. Take, for example, the increased automation of air traffic control you’d need to land multiple aircraft at different points on the same circle, simultaneously. In Hesselink’s vision, human controllers manage traffic flows, as opposed to individual planes.
Turns out, he’s onto something. “The same automation that makes the circular runway feasible might allow improvements to air traffic control and conventional methods,” says Sarah Hubbard, an assistant professor at Purdue University who studies airport operations. Improved GPS and navigational tools would track the sort of curved approaches and departures that a circular path requires. On conventional runways, though, controllers could use such tools to determine when exactly a plane 100 miles out should put its engines on idle and glide toward the airport in a more streamlined and greener path, saving fuel and cutting noise.
Still, Hesselink doesn’t want to be dismissed as a mere thinker. “Even if it will not be realized exactly this way, I really hope that some kind of spinoff will change the way we think about how aircraft should take off and land or come up with new approaches to optimize airfields or optimize capacity,” he says.
He knows the odds he’s fighting, and sees another way forward. If you can’t remake today’s airports, why not try the circular approach for drones, where a century of human experience and work hasn’t cemented old ways into place? Why not use little arced tracks near major cities to handle the cargo drones of the future?
“You don’t have to make a full circle, but maybe a quarter of a circle. You could start operating with that and maybe that’s already sufficient,” Hesselink says. A quarter circle still provides crosswind-free points. “Maybe it would be nice to start with that.”
And from there, perhaps the long arc of the aviation universe will bend toward the circle—someday.