Image: Reinhard Kraasch
Image: Reinhard Kraasch
Treacherous mountains, turbulent winds, and sunbathers so close that they can seemingly reach out and touch the airplane’s wheels. The following ten extraordinary runways are certainly not for the faint of heart. Yet incredibly, these far-from-normal landing areas bring in millions of passengers from around the globe. We’re presuming the intrepid travelers all hoped their given pilot was on top form on their day of departure, as at one location in particular a deviation at either end of the airstrip would mean instant death.
Forget roller coasters; these takeoffs and landings offer thrill-seekers the most hair-raising, adrenaline-inducing experiences around. From sheer drops to jagged mountains, there’s something here to get the heart of even the most veteran flyer racing.
Image: Tom Claytor
10. Matekane Air Strip – Lesotho
Matekane Air Strip’s 1,300-foot-long runway in the tiny monarchy of Lesotho is so short that planes sometimes aren’t even on their ascents by the time they leave it. Rather, they plunge off the end and into a stomach-churning 2,000-foot drop, falling until the takeoff begins in earnest.
Image: Thomas A
Located at an elevation of more than 7,500 feet, the tiny airstrip certainly isn’t one for the faint-hearted. Mercifully, though, the runway – and other high-altitude ones like it in the region – is the domain of the country’s Flying Doctors Service, with its pilots expertly handling single-engine planes to reach various isolated healthcare facilities.
Image: Pia L
9. Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport – Saba, West Indies
Given its seemingly precarious position perched above wave-battered rocks and with a Caribbean Sea gulf at either end, it’s safe to say that Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport’s 1,300-foot runway leaves pilots with absolutely no wriggle room. The rugged terrain of the island of Saba can’t be ignored during the descent to the strip, either, while takeoffs are scarcely less dramatic – with planes taxiing to one end of the short runway before spinning around and appearing to head toward the water.
Image: Jochen Hagemann
Furthermore, it isn’t just a runway shorter than an Olympic running track that’s an issue for pilots here: spray from the sea can be problematic, as can gale-force winds. Indeed, it’s not hard to see why taking off and landing at the 1963-opened runway are among the most frightening flying experiences imaginable. Just as well, then, that local carrier Winair operates only four daily flights.
Image: Donnie Shackleford
8. Princess Juliana International Airport – St. Martin, West Indies
Waves lap against the shore. The sweltering afternoon sun beats down on bronzed holidaymakers. Children laugh as they play on the beach. Then suddenly, the ferocious roar of a jet engine dramatically interrupts the idyllic scene as it passes just tens of feet overhead. No, this isn’t a scene from some disaster movie but, rather, the everyday occurrence of a plane coming in to land at St. Martin’s Princess Juliana International Airport.
Image: Aldo Bidini
At 7,546 feet in length, the runway on the Caribbean island surprisingly handles huge passenger jets filled with European and American vacationers, as well as smaller craft. In fact, more than 1.5 million travelers a year are accommodated by the airport, which began life in 1942 as a U.S. Air Force landing strip. And today aircraft fly in so low that it has become a tourist attraction in itself, with beach bums hoping to catch the engine blasts from the planes as they descend.
Image: Alexander Baxevanis
7. Madeira Airport – Santa Cruz, Madeira
Wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and towering island peaks is the precariously positioned Madeira Airport. Indeed, even veteran pilots find landing here difficult when tumultuous weather conditions are thrown into the mix. The dicey runway itself measured only 5,250 feet when the airport began operating in 1964, and it was deemed necessary to add a bridge-like extension in 1972 in order to provide a safe landing area for jetliners. However, that didn’t prevent a horrifying accident five years later.
On November 19, 1977, flight TP425 attempted to land in treacherous conditions but overshot the runway and plummeted 200 feet, smashing into the beach below – resulting in the deaths of 131 of the 164 people on the plane. The tragedy led to further increases to the runway’s length, and it now stretches for 9,124 feet, meaning it’s suited to large passenger jets.
6. Gustaf III Airport – St. Barthélemy, West Indies
Watching out for passing aircraft isn’t something one would usually expect when basking in the sun, but Gustaf III is no ordinary island airport – even if it’s similar to, albeit a lot smaller than, Juliana International Airport on nearby St. Martin. Indeed, planes pass so close to vacationers’ heads here that a sign on the adjacent beach of St. Jean warns visitors against sunbathing at the runway’s end.
The airport’s origins date back to 1984, while it takes its name from Sweden’s King Gustav III – who was ruling when his country purchased St. Barts from the French in 1785. The runway here measures just over 2,100 feet in length, meaning it’s understandably incompatible with larger intercontinental aircraft. Plus, the compact approach, nearby hilly terrain and challenging winds make the descent suitable only for extremely competent pilots.
Image: Paul Krueger
5. Tenzing-Hillary Airport – Lukla, Nepal
Named after the explorers who first conquered the region’s most famous peak, Tenzing-Hillary Airport is enough to frighten even the most intrepid and seasoned flier. Sitting in the 9,380-foot high Nepalese town of Lukla near Mount Everest, the 1960s-developed airport has the fearful reputation of hosting what is among the planet’s most treacherous airstrips: fly in too high and pilots face colliding with an adjacent slope; too low, and a Himalayan precipice lies in wait.
Though the airport’s runway is no more than 1,729 feet long, nasty weather seems to have been the predominant factor behind the two fatal incidents that occurred here. The first, in May 2004, involved an aircraft crashing into a hillside while on the final leg to Lukla; then in October 2008 a total of 18 people died when a Yeti Airlines plane narrowly undershot its mark.
4. Gibraltar International Airport – Gibraltar
Landing at Gibraltar International Airport requires great accuracy – after all, the imperious Rock of Gibraltar must be negotiated before planes can find the tarmac. And if that weren’t scary enough, jets’ brakes are well and truly tested by a curtailed runway that extends for just 6,000 feet. Plus, when the weather isn’t behaving itself, which can happen fairly regularly, flights are necessarily rerouted to airports in North Africa, southern Spain and Portugal.
Image: Tony Murtagh
Despite the runway’s short length, there still wasn’t enough land in this part of Gibraltar to accommodate it – so it was constructed over the water at its western extremity. And as further testament to Gibraltar’s small size, its airport’s runway is apparently the only one on Earth that crosses an active highway – the route that takes folks to the Spanish border, in fact. The airport was initially created in 1939 for the British Royal Navy.
Image: Hugues Mitton
3. Courchevel Altiport – Savoy, France
Nestled in the stunning Les Trois Vallées region of the French Alps – a favorite with winter sports enthusiasts – is an airport with a runway so short that only especially schooled pilots are allowed to tackle it. In order to make their landings, these aviators have to negotiate a medley of mountain valleys, flying unnervingly close to skiers making their way down the pistes.
Image: Antonina Belova
Constructed in 1961, Courchevel Altiport features a hair-raisingly squat 1,722-foot runway, its gradient of 18.5 percent helping to slow planes after they touch down – or speed them up for takeoff. And passengers enjoy the added heart-stopping attraction of a perilous sheer drop at the runway’s end. Fortunately, a fatal accident here has never been recorded, though there has been the odd incident.
Image: Andrea Zaratin
2. Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport – Toronto Islands, Canada
There can’t be many more enjoyable ways to arrive for a flight than a pleasant minute-and-a-half ferry crossing over Lake Ontario – which is precisely the case at the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport; indeed, covering just 400 feet, this may be the planet’s shortest regular ferry service. Furthermore, the Canadian island airport will imminently add another unique connection for travelers: a below-water passageway to be used by those on foot.
Image: Janus Bahs Jacquet
That said, the fact that the airport is surrounded by water makes it more than a little precarious-seeming. In fact, buoys are placed at the 3,986-foot-long runway’s extremities to ward off boats from getting too close. Unsurprisingly, though, accidents have happened here. In January 1987, for example, a light aircraft with two people on board hurtled into Lake Ontario, with the pilot later succumbing to hypothermia.
1. Tioman Airport – Tioman Island, Malaysia
Pilots hoping to land at Malaysia’s Tioman Airport must first aim their planes at a mountain before turning sharply to bring the craft in line with the South China Sea-facing airstrip. And if that weren’t enough to get hearts racing, overshooting the runway comes with dire consequences. Yes, a rock face begins to rise directly beyond the airstrip’s end, so if aviators don’t apply their brakes in time, a crash is almost guaranteed.
Image: Pulau Tioman
Only Berjaya Air’s modest turboprop aircraft make the perilous route to the 3,254-foot runway, which is just 13 feet above sea level. Despite the danger, though, the airport has an impeccable safety record, with just one reported incident and no fatalities in its history.