Flying always seems like a luxury and an easy way out when it comes to travelling. All you’ve gotta do is sit back and enjoy the view from the window, or delve into the In-Flight-Entertainment. Nevertheless, have you ever wondered what difficulties the pilot must face when steering an airplane? I’m not talking about weather here, since that factor is unpredictable, but it’s airports I’m talking about. Certain airports around the world throw a whole bunch of challenges at the pilot, whereby he must bring out a specialized set of skills to make sure his plane along with his passengers land safely. This is the final call for Flight 10 as we take off to visit the top 10 most extreme airports in the world.
10. Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Maarten
You’ve probably seen images of a full size Boeing 747 right above people walking leisurely on the beach. If you think these are made by using Photoshop, then you’re wrong. In fact, you’re looking at spectacular landings at Princess Juliana International Airport, the main airport on the Caribbean island of Saint Maarten. Planes come shockingly close to by-standers. They are just 40 feet above their heads. It’s the take-offs that get more dangerous, as the jet engines power up just 200 ft from the fence. The exhaust gas hits the beach at 50 miles per hour, the speed of a tropical storm. Tourists are blown away, in every sense of the word. However, nobody can ever forget this airport, whether you are in the plane, or on the white sandy beach.
9. Toncontin International Airport, Honduras
The city of Tegucigalpa, which is the capital of Honduras, is home to one of the most notorious airports in the world. Following several accidents, with one as recent as 2008 which claimed five lives, Toncontin has been under scrutiny of many an authority since years. The scariest feature of this airport is that its runway is situated in a valley surrounded by mountains. This means there’s just one way in and one way out for both incoming and outgoing flights, which increases the risk factor for pilots to a great extent. Nevertheless, there are aircraft as large as Boeing 757’s that land everyday at this hazardous airport.
8. Gustaf III Airport, Saint Barthélemy
This Caribbean island possesses an airport that provides pilots and passengers alike with some pretty grave dangers. To start, the corridor available for planes to make their final approach is extremely narrow, and hence an aircraft can come dangerously close to colliding against the upland area. But if your wheels touch down even a few seconds later than required, your destination is the ocean, as this incredibly narrow runway leads you straight into saltwater. You’ve really got to get your calculations right here, otherwise you’re in for water trouble!
7. Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba Island
This tiny island administered by the Netherlands is the proud possessor of one of the most dangerous airports in the world. With high hills flanking on one side and cliffs dropping into the sea at either end of the 400 m runway, this airport is nothing but extreme. Pilots who have flown in here have often ranked it as the most dangerous airport in the world. Although the airport is officially closed to traffic, regional propeller aircraft are still able to land here with special permits.
6. Barra International Airport, Scotland
Imagine you’re strolling on the white sandy beach, and suddenly you’ve got a plane that’s coming right at you to land exactly where you’re walking. If you think I’m joking, all you’ve got to do is visit Barra International Airport in Scotland. This is the only official international airport that also serves as a beach during airport off-hours. Its runway has a magical property – it can disappear, subject to the tide of course. You better pay attention to the warning signs of all expected upcoming flights if you want to take a romantic walk around this airport-slash-beach.
5. Madeira Airport, Madeira
Initially having a short runway of just 5,250 ft, the runway for this airport on the island of Madeira in Portugal was lengthened and extended across the beach. What’s fantastic is that this runway is in fact supported by a series of 180 columns, each about 70 m tall. Right below the runway are vehicles that run on a daily basis. Imagine what would happen if any one of those columns were to give way! Moreover, the daunting task for the pilot is that he must aim the aircraft straight for the mountain peak that is situated right beside the runway, and then make a hard right in order to get the plane onto the runway. This remains a tricky approach till date, even for the most experienced of pilots.
4. Gibraltar Airport, Gibraltar
On this little outpost of Britain on the southern tip of Spain, that is within stone’s throw from the continent of Africa, stands one of the most unique airports in the world. Believe it or not, the main road of this town, which leads citizens and tourists to Spanish territory, goes right across the runway of the Gibraltar Airport. Every time a flight is about to take off or land, vehicles are made to stop, and trust me that’s one red light you don’t want to run! It’s miraculous how there have been no recorded accidents till date, and let’s just hope things stay this way.
3. Ice Runway at McMurdo Station, Antarctica
At No. 3 is the remotest airport in the world. I introduce you to the Ice Runway at the McMurdo Station, in the uninhabited continent of Antarctica. If you want to head to the South Pole, this is most probably gonna be your airport. If you ever have the unique opportunity to land here, you will feel so remote and so cold that it’s almost like stepping onto another planet. If that isn’t enough trouble for the pilots, the runway surely is. This isn’t your conventional tarmac. This runway is built from scratch every year using nothing but ice. We’re talking about landing a fully loaded 200 ton plane on 8 ft thick sea ice, below which is 2600 ft of water. Crack the ice, and you’re dead in a matter of minutes. And just in case a blizzard hits, the nearest airport is 2000 miles away, where you took off from, back in New Zealand.
2. Lukla Airport, Nepal
Originally called Lukla Airport, this airport has been renamed as the Tenzing-Hillary Airport, honoring the first two men who conquered Mt. Everest. In fact, if you are arriving in Nepal to give the Everest climb a shot, or even visit the Everest base camp regions, this is your airport right here. Nepal has mountain peaks scattered all across the country, and this airport doesn’t have the luxury of finding itself in a plain and simple-for-pilots area. Apart from high winds and extreme cloud cover, the runway is sandwiched between high terrain and a 2000 ft drop. Accidents aren’t uncommon here, with the most recent one having taken place in October 2010. This certainly isn’t a landing for the faint-hearted.
1. Courchevel Airport, France
If you’ve watched Tomorrow Never Dies you’d know that even the great James Bond was challenged by this airport. It’s none other than Courchevel Airport, located in the French Alps. Courchevel is known for being a famous ski resort, and this airport, situated at such an altitude, is your destination. Landings here are a whole different ball game altogether. Firstly, pilots must work their way through the Alps in order to approach this airport. If that wasn’t enough trouble, the runway literally looks like a BMX ramp, and has a gradient of 18.5%. Throw in mountain weather, winds and snow along, and you’ve got all the elements of the most extreme airport in the world.
It’s remarkable how in spite of all the complications, intricacies and dangers that these airports pose, pilots land aircraft here day in and day out. Well, next time you happen to have a slight delay arriving at any of these airports, remember to place yourselves in the pilot’s shoes and then thank him for at least landing you safely at your destination. A few minutes delay is a much better option than a few nights at a hospital which might be the result of the extremeness of any of these airports coming into play. Fly safe!