The World's Scariest Runways

by AOL Travel Staff Subscribe to AOL Travel Staff's posts Posted Nov 13th 2009 04:44 PM


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Worlds Scariest Runways

Nail-biting landings and harrowing takeoffs-buckle up when you fly into these airports.

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 Paro in Bhutan or Toncontìn Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, that the adage starts to make sense. Both are surrounded by mountains, and Toncontìn has one of the world's shortest international runways; each requires a series of hard, last-minute banks. It's no wonder that both give even the most seasoned pilots-not to mention their passengers-the sweats.

According to aviation experts, factors that contribute to difficult landings include the truncated length of runways, unique atmospheric and meteorological conditions, dramatic geographical settings, heavy air traffic, or a combination thereof.

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.

See more from Travel + Leisure.

Worlds Scariest Runways

Who Flies There: Druk Air, the national carrier.

Why It's Harrowing: Tucked into a tightly cropped valley and surrounded by 16,000-foot-high serrated Himalayan peaks, this is arguably the world's most forbidding airport to fly into. It requires specially trained pilots to maneuver into this stomach-dropping aerie by employing visual flying rules and then approaching and landing through a narrow channel of vertiginous tree-covered hillsides. Only eight pilots in the world are qualified to make this landing.

Worlds Scariest Runways

Who Flies There: All major U.S. airlines, as well as Paris-based charter carrier Corsairfly, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and a handful of regional operators.

Why It's Harrowing: The 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 747's and Airbus A340's-from Europe, which fly in improbably low over Maho Beach and skim just over the perimeter fence.

Worlds Scariest Runways

Who Flies There: American Airlines, Continental, Copa Airlines, TACA, Islena Airlines, and Aerolineas Sosa.

Why It's Harrowing: Having 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.

Worlds Scariest Runways

Who Flies There: British Airways, EasyJet, Iberia Airlines, and Monarch Airlines.

Why It's Harrowing: Pinched 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.

Worlds Scariest Runways

Who Flies There: Most scheduled (and many charter) European carriers.

Why It's Harrowing: Wedged 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.

Worlds Scariest Runways

Who Flies There: Former home to Cathay Pacific; also Dragonair, Air Hong Kong, Hong Kong Airways

Why It's Harrowing: Although 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.

Worlds Scariest Runways

Who Flies There: British Airways and Flybe.

Why It's Harrowing: 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.

Worlds Scariest Runways

Who Flies There: All major U.S., European, and Asian airlines.

Why It's Harrowing: Parkway Visual-a.k.a. the Canarsie Approach-is the especially daunting flyway here, since pilots have to avoid interfering with flights into New York's two other close-by airports, LaGuardia and Newark. Set up in 1964 as a noise-abatement measure to pacify angry residents, this approach forces pilots to have a reported 1,500-foot ceiling and a five-mile visibility for their circular approach before lining up with runway 13L, with the threatening waters of Jamaica Bay beckoning at the runway's end.

Worlds Scariest Runways

Who Flies There: Yeti Airlines

Why It's Harrowing: Recently renamed after the famous Everest climber-conquerers, mountainous Tenzing-Hillary Airport not only has one of the steepest uphill runways in the world, but its drop-off, into the wind shear-prone Himalayan valley below, is sure to give even the heartiest mountaineers pause. Here, daily 30-minute flights from Katmandu are only allowed to land during daylight, weather permitting.

Worlds Scariest Runways

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Valdez, AK is interesting. You fly in over big, rugged looking mountains, then if it's cloudy, you drop down out of the clouds like you are going on a strafing run and head for the foot of a glacier.

June 20 2013 at 2:41 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

These are all child's play... try the "airport in the sky" on Catalina, CA

June 20 2013 at 12:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

They missed a few. Washington National in D.C. is as harrowing as any of those listed, and the runway at Guatemala City, Guatemala ends abruptly at a high cliff's edge. The plane taking off literally flies off the cliff.

June 20 2013 at 12:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dickn2000b's comment

Were you aware that President Clinton changed the name of Washington National to Reagan National Airport in 1998? Haven't flown there in awhile? Reagan is on the list

June 20 2013 at 3:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
George T Guerre

Bluie West airstrip in southern Greenland is between two mountains and is a dangerous landing.I am not sure that it still exits but during World War11 it was a stop-over while flying the northern route to Europe.As a navigator on a B-17 I was always thankful for the skill of my pilots.

June 20 2013 at 11:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to George T Guerre's comment
John Sheffer

I think I found the one you're talking about. According to Wikipedia, "Bluie-West 8" was under US control until 1992, when it was turned over to Greenland, though we still have a national guard unit there. The airstrip became Greenland's largest commercial hub, Kangerlussuaq airport, and is still used today.

September 01 2013 at 12:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Nothing to see here (apparently)

June 20 2013 at 10:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

what slideshow?

June 20 2013 at 10:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I flew In and Out of Toncontin for 30 years. Both Military and Commercial. No incidents. No accidents.
A well trained and disciplined Pilot should have no problem doing the same I did.
There is no need for such a "dramatic 45 degree last minute bank". It requires a well planned approach.
Toncontin is 3,250 feet above sea level. Used to be 6,350 feet long; now it is well over 7,000 feet long, with a clean Final Approach path.

Capt. C. Gamundi

June 20 2013 at 10:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dol384's comment

In 30+ yrs in the Navy Special Boat Teams, I landed in a lot of places that didn't bear any great resemblance to an airport but my first time into the old Toncontin in a commercial flight was an experience, since I had no warning that it was coming. The pilot's notification of intention to land shook me awake and I just looked out a starboard side window as he went into a hard port bank and steep decent to drop down into the airport. In my just awakened drowsiness, I thought he had lost control of the aircraft then, when he leveled out, all I could see were shanties and it looked like we were going to crash in a residential neighborhood. As if that weren't welcome enough, a couple of days later, I and 3 of my military buddies flew out to Roatan for some diving and on that puddle jumper, I actually had to tie my seat belt in a knot because there was no buckle on it and my seat cushion was from a lawn chair. I was beginning to have my doubts about engine maintenance but, in talking with the pilot, it seemed clear that he had every expectation of surviving the trip, so I sat back and relaxed. I've had 2 landings in military aircraft, into perfectly "normal" looking airports with severe cross winds, where the plane actually scraped a wing tip on landing, so even routine landings into mundane-appearing airports can go south on you.

June 20 2013 at 10:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

lots of fun landing at the airport in asturias, spain. short landing strip, every passenger was pretending to hit the brakes, hoping the plane would stop before the end of the strip.

June 20 2013 at 10:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As a pilot you know what you can do and what you can’t. If you know your and the aircrafts limitations your fine. In those one way airports you just know you do it right the first time. But that’s the way it is in aviation. The only passing mark is 100%. 99% fails. So if you can’t stand the pressure find another profession. There are old pilots and bold pilots there are no old bold pilots. It’s by the numbers folks!

June 20 2013 at 9:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Tababela Airport in Quito, Ecuador,scary

June 20 2013 at 9:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply