Question: At the airport I hear pilots using the word tarmac when they are talking about the places where aircraft taxi and park. But I also hear the term ‘ramp’ applied to this space. Which is correct?
Answer: Technically both are correct. The ramp is the space where aircraft ground operations such as taxing and parking take place. Tarmac is a shortened version of Tarmacadam, a type of pavement made out of crushed stone covered in tar. The ramp at a paved airport is made of this.
The crushed stone surface was invented by an engineer named John McAdam in the 19th century. As the story goes, the tar part of tarmac was developed when a businessman named Edgar Purnell Hooley, who happened by a tar factory and noticed a bar of tar had spilled onto a macadamized road. To keep people from getting stuck in the tar, the factory spread gravel over the spill, resulting in a durable and dust-free roadway. Hooley patented and trademarked Tarmac in 1901.
In addition to replacing dirt roads, the surface was applied at airports when they evolved from grass fields to the pavement we know today.
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