In terms of traveling long distances, flying on an airplane is one of the fastest, safest, and easiest ways to get to your destination. Unfortunately, not every runway has long, flat stretches.
This means that pilots have to be particularly skilled to land on a runway carved on a mountain or one that appears in a narrow valley. Bearing that in mind, here are 10+ of the scariest or most difficult airports in the world to land at.
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1. Saba Airport is a hazardous airport to approach
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, otherwise known as Saba Airport, is one of the world's scariest airports. Located on the Dutch Caribbean island of Saba, it lies about 27 miles (45 kilometers) south of St. Maarten.
Its runway is a pitiful 1300 feet (400 meters) long one, making it one of the shortest commercial airports in the world. This tiny runway length means only the very best pilots have what it takes to safely land and take off from it.
But its short runway is not the only hazard would-be approaching pilots need to be aware of. The airport is surrounded by jagged terrain and a sharp left bank immediately before landing.
It might be safer to take the ferry or swim if you want to visit this place.
2. Congonhas Airport has a very short runway
Congonhas International Airport in São Paulo, Brazil, is not only scary, it is also one of the world's most dangerous airports. Another airport with a short runway, it is also located in a heavily-built-up portion of the enormous city, it feels as if you're scraping the tops of high rise buildings as you land here.
One of four airports serving the city, it has become famed for its risky runways that are often accused of being the slipperiest in the world, because its runway had not been constructed with proper grooves to drain away excess rainwater, leading to a build-up of standing water at times. This has resulted in a large number of fatal crashes.
In fact, over the years there have been some very serious accidents at the airport. One notable example occurred in 2007 when TAM Airlines Airbus A320 overran runway 35L during moderate rain. The plane crashed into a nearby warehouse, killing all 187 people on board and 12 civilians on the ground.
3. You might want to avoid traveling to Telluride Regional Airport
Telluride Regional Airport is located in southwest Colorado and is widely considered one of the scariest in the world. Around 5 miles (8 km) west of the town of Telluride, it is one of the highest airports by elevation in America, at 9,070 feet (2.76 km).
It was built in the 1980s and boasted over 9,400 operations a year, at least before the current COVID-19 crisis. While actually quite safe in reality, the approach to it can seem quite hair-raising, to say the least.
Located on a small plateau, it features 1,000-foot (300 mt) sheer cliffs at both ends of the runway, and pilots need to overcome strong vertical turbulence from the mountain winds during winter months. Not only that, but each end of the runway is actually slightly higher than the middle, creating a dip, although this was reduced during a 2009 renovation.
Many passengers who've taken the trip will confirm that it's quite the white-knuckle ride.
4. Svalbard Airport is actually built on permafrost
Built on permafrost, Svalbard airport not only seems scary, but it is also an engineering marvel in its own right. Located in Norway's Arctic archipelago, the 8,000-foot (2438 mt) runway is built directly on ice. Culverts under the runways allow water to run from the mountain. There are also no runway lights, so flights are only permitted during daylight. This may not seem like a big issue, until you realize that in the winter the sun does not really rise here.
The airport was built on permafrost with the runway insulated against the ground so it will not melt during the summer.
While its safety record is excellent, its location as one of the world's northernmost airports can make flights to it very challenging for pilots. Inclement weather and the proximity to the Earth's magnetic north pole can create visibility and navigational difficulties for even the best pilots.
For these reasons, one of Norway's worst air accidents occurred at this airport in 1996. A Russian flight bound for Longyearbyen crashed into a mountain after being about 3.2 km (2 miles) off its approach centerline, killing all 141 passengers on board.
Crash investigations later concluded that pilot error was the cause of the crash.
5. Wellington International Airport is built in the mountains
Located in New Zealand, Wellington International Airport is yet another of the world's most difficult airports to land at. Featuring a 6,350 feet (1935 meters) long runway, both ends appear to start and end in water.
Approaching it is also very tricky for pilots, as the airport is located in a mountainous area of the country which is famed for its gusty winds, which make maneuvering for landings even more tricky. Even after landing, passengers can be swept off their feet by the strong gusts. Despite this, there have been very few safety incidents.
Other than that, in the past, the airport had been recognized as having one of the best terminals in the world. Despite this, it is constantly ranked among the scariest places to land anywhere in the world.
6. Gisborne Airport has a rail track running through it
Another entry from New Zealand, Gisborne Airport is also considered to be one of the world's most difficult airports. Located on the outskirts of Gisborne, this airport actually has a railway intersecting its runway at one point.
It has three grass runways and one main runway, landings require accurate coordination with approaching trains. For this reason, it is not uncommon for either planes or trains to be delayed to allow the other to safely pass.
7. Lukla Airport is nestled in the Himalayas
The Lukla Airport, technically Tenzing–Hillary Airport, in Nepal serves as the main airport for those visiting Mt. Everest. Part of what makes this airport so difficult to land on is the way it is nestled in between mountains, and the incredibly short length of the runway.
In fact, the airport is quite small. The airport sometimes loses electric power, cutting off communication with the controllers. This makes landings risky even in perfect conditions.
The airport is positioned 9,325 feet (2.84 km) high and is built on the side of a mountain. The runway is one direction only and is just 1,600 feet (488 m) long, with serious slopes and angles. At one end of the runway is a mountain wall and the other end is a dramatic 2,000-foot (600 mt) plunge into the valley.
8. Courchevel International Airport has one of the world's shortest runways
Video of a landing at the Courchevel airport went viral a few years ago, as it has one of the shortest runways of any airport in the world, at 1,722 feet (525 meters). Not only this, but the paved runway has a downward slope of 18.5% which makes taking off even more difficult.
To add to the already difficult landing, the runway is built right into the Alps, where pilots have to fly through a narrow valley even to prepare for descent. Only specially-certified pilots are allowed to land here. The airport is not equipped with lights or instrumentation aids, so in bad weather landing is impossible.
9. Toncontin Airport, Tegucigalpa, Honduras is built in a valley
As you may have noticed, airports located in the mountains are very hard to land on, due to their varying terrain and often short approaches. Toncontin Airport is no different.
In order for planes to prepare for the descent, they must make a rapid 45-degree bank turn to reach the runway in a valley, an approach likened to landing on an aircraft carrier. After this bank, planes must rapidly drop in altitude, being careful not to scrape the terrain directly underneath. Wind gusts and poor weather also hamper the approach.
10. The approach direction to Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten is actually over a beach
Like some other runways in the Caribbean Sea, Princess Juliana Airport, located in Saint Maarten, is perhaps the most famous on the list. This is partly because of the public beach situated just before the runway.
Planes must approach over the water at an extremely low altitude. This often results in large and loud gusts of wind and sand engulfing those enjoying the crystal blue water down below. For the pilots, however, bothering visitors is not the only worry.
The runway is only around 1.36 miles(2.2 km) long, which is very short considering many of the large aircrafts that land here generally require more than 2,500 meters to ensure a safe landing. Princess Juliana was initially built for smaller planes, but the booming tourist industry has brought A340s and 747s into the regular traffic rotation.
11. Only a handful of pilots can land at Paro Airport
Tucked away in the Himalayas, Paro Airport is famous for being one of the world's most difficult to land at. In fact, only a handful of pilots are qualified to do so.
Located in Bhutan, the airport lies about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) above sea level. Sounds pleasant enough, but be mindful that the airport is surrounded by sharp peaks, up to 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) tall.
Its runway is 6,500 feet (1,980 m) long and only allows for arrivals and departures during the daytime. Most difficult part is that pilots cannot see the runway at all until the last minute as they must maneuver between mountains at a 45-degree angle before finally dropping quickly onto the runway. At one point during the approach, planes must come extremely close to mountain top homes, and one red cliffside home even serves as a key marker for pilots.
12. Gibraltar International Airport has a street running through it
Gibraltar International Airport is probably the most unusual airport in southern Europe. While the runway isn't particularly hard to land at, an interesting design feature makes it potentially dangerous.
The city's main street, Winston Churchill Avenue, intersects with the runway and has to be closed when a plane needs to land. There is a stoplight on the road telling cars to stop, but there have been a number of close calls in the airport's history. The short runway also ends abruptly at the sea on both ends, forcing pilots to stop very quickly immediately after landing.
13. McMurdo Air Station in Antarctica can get pretty icy
Not many people travel to Antarctica, which means that the airport infrastructure there is significantly lacking. This runway isn't particularly short, but it is built on "white ice" (compacted snow), which can make for a difficult landing, even in good weather conditions. In 1970, a C-121 slid off the runway and still sits off to its side, buried in snow.
During the winter, the area is dark 24 hours a day. The airport has no lights on the runway, and during the non-infrequent whiteouts, pilots must land blind, using night vision equipment.
14. Landing at Madeira Airport in Portugal is a white knuckle ride
Madeira Airport is one of the few in the world where engineers built a platform in order to expand the runway. The landing strip sits between steep cliffs and the shores of the ocean.
To expand the runway, engineers built a series of platforms on an artificial island. The runway is held up by more than 180 columns, which have to withstand the shock of landings.
Only a limited amount of pilots are qualified to land on this airport. Pilots must navigate their approach by spotting landmarks and cannot land by instrument alone. To make it more difficult, there are strong winds, high mountains on one side and the ocean on the other.
15. MCAS Futenma, Okinawa has high-density housing nearby
This airport is situated on a US Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa, Japan. The airstrip is located right in the middle of a crowded city, with houses, parks, schools, and businesses crowding right up to the fence. It is also a busy airport, as F/A-18 Hornets and V-22 Osprey continuously land here.
In fact, the situation of MCAS Futenma is in direct violation of the safety standards set down for military airfields by the U.S. Department of the Navy. In 2003, it was recommended that the Navy shut down the airport, but it remained open and in 2004 a CH 53 Sea Stallion crashed into one of the school buildings on the nearby campus of Okinawa International University. It was blind luck that no one was killed.
To this day, the airport remains open.
16. Narsarsuaq Airport, Greenland might just be the world's most dangerous airport
Similar to Antarctica, the extreme airports in Greenland are often covered in ice. At only 5,900 feet (1,800 meters) in length, and canvassed in smooth ice, this runway is difficult for pilots.
The weather is also often stormy, creating intense turbulence and low visibility on approach making it very uncomfortable for both flight crew and passengers. Wind shears affect planes which, coupled with the icy runway, can direct them off their course.
Oh, and the nearby active volcano also occasionally erupts, sending ash into the clouds which can stall and destroy engines.
And that's a wrap.
Have you ever traveled to any of these airports? Are they as dangerous as people say?