Isle of Barra, Scotland
Not so much a touchdown but splashdown at the world’s only beach airport for scheduled flights. Flight times are dictated by the tide and the ‘runway’ is washed away each evening.
With the unofficial title “the St Maarten of Greece” the runway on tiny Skiathos Island is so short that right up to touch-down it looks as if the plane might just land in the sea. Consequently it is a popular place for plane spotting, which is great, as long as everything goes to plan.
Surrounded by the towering peaks of the Himalayas, Paro is one of the world’s most challenging airports for pilots. Indeed, only eight pilots in the world are currently certified to land here. Located in a deep valley, landing involves negotiating a series of mountains, rapid descents and then a steep bank to the left immediately before the much-longed for landing.
Located high in the mountains, take-offs here are not for the faint-hearted as lying at the end of Matekane’s bumpy airstrip is a 2,000ft drop and, depending on wind conditions, aircraft have been known not to make it into the air before reaching the end of the meagre 1,312ft runway.
Billed as one of the world’s shortest runways, at approximately 1,300 feet long, pilots describe landing on this exposed strip of tarmac as more akin to touching down on an aircraft carrier. Aircraft must fly headlong towards a cliff before making a sharp bank to the left just before landing. The runway is located high above the surrounding ocean, with precipitous drops on three sides.
Sea Ice Runway, Antarctica
Carved into the sea ice off Ross Island annually, this 2.5-mile runway operates throughout much of the Antarctic summer. Pilots must avoid a heavy landing and stationary aircraft should be monitored closely to ensure they do not sink more than 10 inches into the ice.
Princess Juliana International Airport, St Maarten, Caribbean
The flight approach to Princess Juliana is over water and pilots must make regular instrument checks to ensure the correct altitude is maintained, as sea approaches such as these can be disorientating. Maho Beach has become a popular spot from which to observe approaching aircraft.
Take-off involves a sharp turn to the right, actually a u-turn, to avoid the mountains that loom large at the end of the runway.
Tenzing-Hillary airport, Lukla, Nepal
There is no room for pilot error during take-off and landing at this high-altitude airport that was re-named in honour of the first men to conquer nearby Mount Everest. The dramatic approach involves navigating a tight route through the mighty mountains of the Himalayas and then, immediately on touchdown, slamming the propellers into reverse in an attempt to avoid crashing into the mountainous wall of rock at the end of the runway.
Take-offs are just as nerve-wracking as aircraft thunder down the sloping runway in an attempt to take to the skies before encountering the steep drop at the other end.
Narsarsuaq Airport, Greenland
For passengers, the approach to this remote airport is among the world’s most beautiful. For pilots, however, the approach for landing involves flying up a fjord and the threat of severe turbulence and wind shear are ever present problems, even on the seemingly calmest of days. Only pilots with extensive knowledge of the local terrain and weather conditions are permitted to attempt the fjord approach. Night-time take-offs and landing are banned.
Jutting into the Mediterranean Sea, pilots must slam on the brakes as soon as the wheels hit the tarmac in order to avoid a watery landing at the other end of this tiny island’s short runway.
Toncontin International Airport, Honduras
In 2007 work began on removing part of the hillside at the end of this airport’s notoriously short runway. Large aircraft have been banned from landing here since 2008 after an Airbus A320-233 over-shot the runway on landing and ploughed into a nearby street. Five people were killed in the accident and many more were injured. Mountainous terrain adds to the extreme difficulties for pilots landing here.
Courchevel Altiport, French Alps
Only certified pilots are permitted to land at this high-altitude airstrip in the Saint-Bon-Tarentaise region of the French Alps. The short, steep and sloping runway – at a gradient of 18.5 per cent – has been designed so that aircraft are slowed down on landing. The approach to the altiport is via deep valleys and the mountainous weather conditions make for extremely hazardous flying conditions.
Kai Tak, Hong Kong
Now the stuff of legend, the white-knuckle approach to Kai Tak’s runway 13 involved flying low over Hong Kong’s densely populated residential districts. Shortly before landing, at a height of less than 1,000 feet, approaching aircraft were required to execute a sharp, and technically challenging, turn to the right to line up with the runway. Strong crosswinds and the surrounding mountains only added to the difficulties of landing here. Residents on the flight path frequently complained about the noise and lack of privacy from curious passengers on passing aircraft. After a turbulent history that involved a number of fatal crashes, the airport was finally closed in 1998.
Wellington, New Zealand
Conditions here are exceptionally difficult owing to the short runway, a tricky approach through hilly landscape and frighteningly strong crosswinds that can make for a terrifyingly turbulent landing.
The wind often takes hold of aircraft landing in Madeira, making for some terrifyingly shaky landings. The airport’s proximity to mountains and the sea, and subsequent risk of extreme turbulence and poor weather conditions, means that landing here rarely goes smoothly.