The world’s craziest airports

Every day pilots battle extreme weather conditions, challenging terrain, short runways and air traffic congestion to ensure their passengers arrive safely. But as Alannah Eames shows, landing and taking off can be more ‘extreme’ at some airports than others.

Nestled into the Himalaya mountains and the ‘gateway’ to Everest, Lukla airport in Nepal is considered by pilots and passengers alike to be one of the world’s most treacherous airports… not least because of its high altitude, short runway and vulnerability to fast-changing weather.

I was worried that the plane might not stop in time and hit the brick wall at the end that I’d heard a plane last year had hit

Lukla’s Tenzing-Hilary Airport opened in December 1964 and is named after the first two men to reach the summit of Mount Everest – sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hilary.

Lying at an altitude of 2,860 metres, its runway is just 460 metres long with a dramatic 600-metre drop at the end of it into the valley below. It’s like landing on a mountain ridge with a 12 per cent gradient, the equivalent of a 10-storey building at the end of the runway.

Due to its location in the mountains, pilots have only one chance to land and there is no option to overshoot or for a go-around. Even though the runway was paved in 2001, fatal crashes at Lukla are, unfortunately, common occurrences. Yet this does not deter the almost 500 passengers who travel there daily during the peak season.

Dominica and Evan Miller took the 45-minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla in 2011 to spend their honeymoon trekking to the Everest Base Camp. She compares the plane to the one in the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom film.

“Even though I had seen images and videos of the planes before, nothing prepared me for the smallness, cramped internal space and the age of the plane”.

Then came the landing. “It felt like the approach to Lukla came out of nowhere,” she recalls.

“We came weaving and climbing over a mountain range and then dropped suddenly. I was shocked by how tiny the runway was and worried that the plane might not stop in time and hit the brick wall at the end that I’d heard a plane had hit last year”.

After a “bumpy” landing, the pilot hit the brakes hard and when it came to a standstill was rewarded with a round of applause. “I was very relieved to be back on the ground but started to dread the return flight 14 days later,” Dominica says. “Especially after seeing at the Sherpa Museum that the airport and runway – and the planes – had not changed much in 50 years!”

Toncontin International Airport in Honduras is another runway which requires nerves of steel. Opened in 1934, it has one of the shortest runways upon which large commercial aircraft currently land.

To further complicate things, it is surrounded by mountains where quick-moving fronts can seriously impair vision. Most alarmingly, at the end of the runway, a 20-metre cliff drops on to a highway.

A series of landmarks – hills, roads, a house with a pool – serve as markers to guide the pilot to the runway where the aircraft must land between two marks.

These precarious conditions have resulted in two serious crashes. One rainy morning in 1989 a plane missed all the markers on its approach and went over the runway, killing 127 of the 146 passengers on board.

In 2008, another plane went over the cliff. The runway has since been extended but pilots continue to battle the challenges posed by the terrain, weather and a still too-short runway.

The Caribbean islands boast some more of the world’s most extreme airports. Around 1.7 million passengers per year pass through St Maarten’s Princess Juliana Airport, which opened in 1944.

As the planes approach the runway, their wheels whizz just over the heads of the people lounging on one of the island’s busiest beaches.

Considered one of the greatest airplane spotting places in the world, thousands come each year to ‘ride the fence’ – which basically means hanging on to the wire fence around the runway to experience a jet blast from a jumbo jet.

Nobody has ever been badly injured but there have been incidents of people getting blown into the water by the force of the jet engines.

A 12-minute flight from St Maarten is St Barth’s Gustav III Airport. Its runway is just 640 metres long and the airport is surrounded on all sides by hills which cause turbulence and limitations for take-off and landing. In 2009, a small plane overshot the runway, landing in the beach and shallow water; luckily nobody died.

Madeira’s Funchal Airport opened in 1964 and is cut out of the side of a mountain. It is surrounded by mountainous terrain which causes turbulence, racked by offshore winds and home to a huge population of sea birds, meaning the risk of dramatic wind shifts and bird strikes.

After a plane carrying 131 passengers overshot its short 1,500-metre runway in 1977, it was extended. But it had to be built out over the ocean so today it looks like it is on ‘stilts’ at either ends – if you go over the runway, expect an 18-metre drop.

Stefan Volz, an A320 captain, considers it one of the most difficult airports he flies to. “You know in some places people dive for shipwrecks, in Madeira you can dive for plane wrecks,” he jokes. “But they’re from quite a long time ago, long before they lengthened the runway by around 600 metres.”

Airports located in mountainous terrain where the weather can change within minutes also give pilots a run for their money.

Altitude affects the airplane – for roughly every 3,000 metres it goes up, it loses 30 per cent of its horsepower. To make up for lack of horsepower, speed has to be increased. And to gather speed, more runway is needed.

Two examples are Colorado’s Eagle-Vail Airport and Courchevel in the French Alps. At Eagle Vail, departure is through a special pass, a very precise manoeuvre from take-off time to cruising altitude.

Courchevel, on the other hand, looks a bit like a rollercoaster. Pilots have to land on a steep uphill; if they land too fast, they risk driving the nose of the plane into the slope.

Any slip-ups approaching or leaving airports located close to large urban areas can be devastating, not just for passengers on board but also for those on the ground.

Once considered one of the busiest airports in the world, Hong Kong’s former international airport, Kai Tak, closed in 1998 after over 70 years in operation. Landing and taking off here required meticulous precision as it involved landing huge commercial aircraft almost in downtown Hong Kong, seemingly brushing past large skyscrapers.

In 1993 one plane skidded across the runway plunging into the shallow waters of Hong Kong Harbour; luckily there were no deaths.

Air traffic congestion is a problem for San Diego’s Lindbergh Airport – located close to the city centre – where around 55 flights take off and land per hour at peak times on its single runway.

After a commercial aircraft and a small Cessna collided mid-air in 1978, in one of California’s worst ever aviation disasters, small planes were banned in this crowded airspace.

Gibraltar Airport has a four-lane highway running right across the centre of its runway. Somewhat of an inconvenience for the pilots, it also creates a traffic jam for the locals when the highway is closed off due to a plane taking off or landing.

Gibraltar poses other challenges for pilots: “The winds are tricky here because they’re constantly shifting,” says Captain Volz. “On top of this, birds are a serious, and uncontrollable, problem – either they hit you or they don’t.”

10 of the most extreme

1. Lukla, Nepal
2. Tegucigalpa, Honduras
3. St. Barth’s, Caribbean
4. St. Maarten, Caribbean
5. Gibraltar
6. Kai Tak, Hong Kong
7. Courchevel, France
8. Eagle Vail, Colorado, US
9. Funchal, Madeira
10. San Diego, US

Source: History Channel documentary The World’s Most Extreme Airports1


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