There's a sobering saying among pilots: "Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing." And it's not until you fly into places like Toncontìn Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, that the adage starts to make sense. Toncontìn has one of the world's shortest international runways and requires a series of hard last-minute banks. It's no wonder it gives even the most seasoned pilots -- not to mention their passengers -- the sweats.
While Paro's airport in Bhutan is the most extreme example -- only eight pilots in the world are qualified to fly into Paro -- a number of the world's airports, from St. Maarten in the Caribbean to Madeira Airport in Funchal, can present challenges for pilots. "A lot of these airports require additional training and route familiarization because they're so crazy," says one commercial pilot who flies international routes.
According to aviation experts, mitigating factors range from the truncated length of runways to unique atmospheric and meteorological conditions, dramatic geographical settings, heavy air traffic or a combination thereof. "Sometimes it's just the way the airport is laid out that makes it a pain," says the pilot, referring to whether an airport is situated askew.
And it's not always the landing that's the stuff of lore. Matekane Air Strip, in the tiny African kingdom of Lesotho, features a stunted 1,312-foot-long runway perched at the edge of a couloir that sits at 7,550 feet. According to celebrated bush pilot Tom Claytor, depending on the wind during takeoff, it's entirely possible for the aircraft not to be airborne by the end of the airstrip. "Instead," he says, "you shoot off the end of the airstrip, then drop down the 2,000-foot cliff face until you start flying." It's enough to make you take the train.
-- Farhad Heydari
See More Scary Runways HereThe length of the runway -- just 7,152 feet -- is perfectly fine for small or medium-size jets, but as the second-busiest airport in the Eastern Caribbean, it regularly welcomes so-called heavies -- long-haul wide-body jetliners like Boeing 747s and Airbus A340s -- from Europe, which fly in improbably low over Maho Beach and skim just over the perimeter fence.
See More Scary Runways HereHaving negotiated the rough-hewn mountainous terrain, pilots must execute a dramatic 45-degree, last-minute bank to the left just minutes prior to touching down in a bowl-shaped valley on a runway just 6,112 feet in length. The airport, at an altitude of 3,294 feet, can accommodate aircraft no larger than Boeing 757’s.
See More Scary Runways HerePinched in by the Mediterranean on its eastern flank and the Bay of Gibraltar on its western side, the airport’s truncated runway stretches just 6,000 feet and requires pinpoint precision. And upon hitting the tarmac, pilots must quickly and fully engage the auto-brakes. Yet as nerve-wracking as the landing can be, it’s never guaranteed. Because of Gibraltar’s unique topography, the British colony endures unusual localized weather patterns that cause flights to be diverted to nearby Tangiers, Faro, and Malaga.
See More Scary Runways HereWedged in by mountains and the Atlantic, Madeira Airport requires a clockwise approach for which pilots are specially trained. Despite a unique elevated extension that was completed back in 2000 and now expands the runway length to what should be a comfortable 9,000 feet, the approach to Runway 05 remains a hair-raising affair that pilots absolutely dread. They must first point their aircraft at the mountains and, at the last minute, bank right to align with the fast-approaching runway.
See More Scary Runways HerePerched on a precipitous gale-battered peninsula on the island’s northeastern corner, the airport requires pilots to tackle blustery trade winds, occasional spindrift, and their own uneasy constitutions as they maneuver in for a perfect landing (there’s no margin for error) on a runway that’s just 1,300 feet long. “Shorting this means ending up in the cliffs,” says one pilot matter-of-factly, “while overshooting it means an uncomfortable go-around. Either way, you’ll want to bring the Dramamine.”
See More Scary Runways HereAlthough it closed in 1998, this infamous urban airport will go down in history as one of the scariest of all time. Planes would practically graze skyscrapers and jagged mountains surrounding Kowloon Bay as they took off and landed on a single runway that shot headlong into Victoria Harbour.
See More Scary Runways Here Have you ever landed on a beach? The airport on the tiny Outer Hebridean Island of Barra is actually a wide shallow bay onto which scheduled planes land, making it a curiosity in the world of aviation. Admittedly, the roughness of the landings is determined by how the tide goes out to sea. Locals, who are avid cockle pickers, steer clear of the vast swath of hardened sand when the wind sock is up -- a sign that specially rigged Twin Otter propeller aircraft are incoming.
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