Channel Five’s recently broadcast documentary: “World’s Most Extreme Airports” shone a spotlight on 10 commercial airports with a landing strip that should carry a warning sign to incoming passengers: hold your nerve.
If you missed the 90-minute episode, which aired on British television on October 14, we uncover five of the featured airfields: Nepal’s Lukla Airport, Central America’s Toncontin International, Gibraltar, France’s Courcheval and San Diego’s Lindbergh Field.
What makes these airports an endurance test for pilots? From navigating tricky mountainous terrain, unpredictable weather and stupidly short runways to sheer cliff drops at the end…..and we’re just scratching the surface.
Toncontin International, C America: Good brake pads (and skill) are essential when you’re piloting these jets, otherwise, roll off the runway and over a 60ft cliff top.
Other airports making Channel Five’s hotlist include: Princess Juliana International – St Maarten and St Barts in the Caribbean; the old Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong; Eagle Vail in Colorado and Madeira airport.
After all this excitement, the TERMINAL U team are off to the local travel agent to pick up a brochure on Gibraltar…..we feel a holiday coming on!
1: The “World’s Most Extreme Airport”: Lukla, Himalayas, Nepal
Ever dreamed of hiking up Mount Everest? Lukla is the gateway to the famous mountain and those who attempt to climb it usually pass through Lukla, but only if you can handle the short flight over from Kathmandu.
Why did Lukla climb to Channel Five’s number one spot? Where do we start?! Not only is Lukla one of the world’s highest airports, positioned 9000ft up in the clouds, but it has one of the shortest runways – at just 1,600ft (to put into perspective, Heathrow’s two runways are over 12,000ft a piece). And just to give pilots another distraction: a 2,000ft drop into the valley awaits you at the other end.
Other challenges include dramatic weather changes and a shocking fact for most airline pilots: there’s no chance to turn the plane around if the runway isn’t approached with a precise ‘step down’ approach.
There have been numerous accidents here, including just last week, when a turboprop operated by SITA Air crashed while attempting to land at the airport. No fatalities were reported.
But on the up-side, only a handful of pilots get permission to fly here and they make dozens of routine flights here every day. And you can take comfort in the knowledge that you’re probably flying with one of the most highly skilled pilots in the world!
2: Toncontin International: Tegucigalpa, Honduras
As well as being an International airport with the shortest runway for commercial traffic, Toncontin International in Central America is infamous for its complex and difficult landing procedures.
Surrounded by mountains, jets must clear this major obstruction with impeccable precision. In fact, the approach must be done with such pin-point accuracy that pilots need to find specific ‘landmarks’ through the cockpit window to guide them into the airfield.
One pilot explained that it’s like a “treasure hunt to get you to the runway” – from finding the house with a pool, to a freeway. And the final approach leaves the jet facing the wrong way, so the pilot must make a quick left turn to line up with the runway, then put the wheels down between two fixed points on the runway. Good brake pads (and skill) are essential when you’re piloting these jets, otherwise, roll off the runway and over a 60ft cliff top.
Also, there’s the busy roads passing narrowly under the flight path and the quick moving weather front meaning jets must descend faster than normal….lots to think about.
5: Gibraltar Airport
What’s unique about this airport? For starters, a four lane highway cuts into the middle of this runway and the barriers have to come down every time a jet pulls up.
With sea on either side, the ‘pavement’ sits at the foot of the mountains, giving rise to adverse weather causing crosswinds that can unsteady planes in the air. High rise buildings and yachts also clutter the surrounding area.
Plus, pilots must keep a constant watch of the high pressure weather system forming over the Iberian Peninsular. With the famous Gibraltar rock landmark cradling the runway, when high winds flow over the rock, it ‘tumbles’ over it, giving pilots some often ‘unexpected’ last second turbulence as the plane is just feet off the ground.
7: Courcheval, France
Described by pilot, Malcolm Adam as: “A ski jump at one end and like a rollercoaster at Magic Mountain going along it,” this topsy turvy runway high up in the French Alps also has a short runway that would startle the most seasoned of pilots, but of course this little slab of pavement is only designed for charter prop planes.
But there’s an added challenge for pilots transporting ski-loving holiday makers here: a 18.5 degree uphill slope. Misjudge the plane’s speed and height and it could smash nose first into the runway. And don’t forget the cliff drop at the other end of the runway.
But there’s been no accidents here to date.. phew.
10: Lindbergh Field, San Diego – the car park blocking the runway
Despite being a regional airport, San Diego is actually the biggest single runway commercial airport in the States.
And its airspace is stretched to the max – with 550 flights taking off and landing on the same strip of tarmac every day.
But there is another potential hazard for pilots to navigate around: a 100ft high multi-storey car park built just 200 yards from the end of the runway. Approaching flights must avoid landing on the first 1,810ft of the runway – a section of the tarmac obstructed by the car park’s flight path.
The community has voted against building a new airport in the city, so for the passengers skimming over the car park every day, it’s business as usual.
We’re wondering why San Diego’s dangerously positioned eye-sore of a car park hasn’t yet been knocked down and rebuilt..Can you tell us?
Your most extreme airport?
Have you experienced the thrills of an ‘extreme’ airport? Are there any other challenging airports that should make the hotlist? Let us know.