Geography and aviation have lead to some pretty interesting combinations. From dodging tourists sunning on a Saint Marten beach to dealing with extreme weather and thin air at high elevations, these are the toughest airports pilots land at every day.
Yes, that brown area on the ski slope is a runway
#10 Funchal Airport, Madeira Island, Portugal (IATA: FNC)
Short, Partly Elevated Runway, Extreme Weather
What Makes Madeira Airport Dangerous
The archipelago of Madeira is Portuguese territory located 520 km (323.11 mi) from the African coast and 1,000 km (621.37 mi) from the European continent. It has two airports (on different islands) and the islands are an approximately one-and-a-half hour flight from the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.
Madeira was formed by volcanic activity and is very mountainous. Most of the interior is hard to access and the settlements cluster on the water around the openings of deep ravines. A general shortage of flat land made building the Madeira airport a challenge.
The original 1964 runway was only 1,600 metres (5,249 ft) in length, which combined with the surrounding high mountains and the effects of the ocean made it famous for tricky landings.
On November 19, 1977 a Boeing 727-200 crashed onto a nearby beach killing 131 people. Just a month later on December 18, 1977 a Sud Caravelle 10R crashed into the ocean killing 6 people.
It took 8 years after these fatal crashes, but the runway was extended in 1985 by 200 metres (660 ft). The airport is now much safer after a very unusual expansion in 2000 almost doubled the size of the runway. The reduced the dangerousness but created a really cool looking airport, so it stays on the list.
In the video, the 2000 expansion is clearly shown. It consists of a series of 180 columns, each about 70 metres (230 ft) tall, built on fill over the ocean. A road and covered sports courts sit under the new runway. The new runway at Funchal Airport won the Outstanding Structures Award from the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE). The Outstanding Structures Award is considered the international "Oscars" for structural engineering.
The History Channel program Most Extreme Airports, ranks Funchal as the 9th most dangerous airport in the world, and the second most dangerous in Europe after Gibraltar Airport.
Fatal Accidents at Madeira
- March 5, 1973, an Aviaco Sud Caravelle 10R (Registration EC-BID) crashed into the sea during approach. Aircraft and three crew were lost.
- November 19, 1977, TAP Portugal Flight TP425, a Boeing 727-200 (Registration CS-TBR) was traveling from Brussels via Lisbon to Madeira. During poor weather conditions, and after a go around the aircraft landed long on runway 24 (Now runway 23) and plunged over a steep bank. The plane then struck a stone bridge were the right wing was torn off, and then crashed hard onto a beach. A fire broke out. 131 people died out of 164 on board.
- December 18, 1977, SA de Transport Aérien Flight 730, a Sud Caravelle 10R (Registration HB-ICK) descended below 720 ft causing the aircraft to crash into the sea on approuch to runway 06 (now runway 05). 6 out of the 57 people on board died.
#9 Eagle County Regional Airport, Colorado, USA (IATA: EGE)
High elevation, Extreme Weather Variability, Approach through Mountainous Terrain
What Makes Eagle County Airport Dangerous?
Eagle County Regional Airport is also referred to as Vail/Eagle Airport or the Eagle Vail Airport and is located four miles west of Eagle, Colorado.Many passangers are headed to and from the nearby ski resorts at Vail and Beaver Creek.
The Eagle County Regional Airport covers 632 acres and is offers only a single runway. At 6,540 ft above sea level EGE is even higher than Denver International's 5,431 ft. (One mile is 5280 feet). Because it is a ski destination, most of the scheduled flights only operate in winter. The Eagle County Airport is also popular with private aircraft operators.
Winter weather variability and an approach through mountainous terrain complicate operations in Eagle County. The airport lacks standard Instrument Landing Systems so all aircraft must use visual flight rules, distance measuring equipment or LDA approaches. Departing aircraft must make a near immediate left turn to avoid terrain and the town of Gypsum, Colorado.
In 2008-2009, the airport finished its runway repaving and extension which brought the runway up to 9,000 feet. This runway expansion enabled planes to take off with more weight.
The History Channel rated Eagle County Regional Airport as #8 on its list of Most Extreme Airports in July 2010.
There have been no fatal accidents at Eagle County Regional Airport yet.
#8 Paro Airport, Bhutan (IATA: PBH)
High altitude and weather
What makes Paro Airport Dangerous?
Paro Airport in Bhutan sits at 7,300 ft (2,200 m) between 18,000+ foot Himalayan mountains. Planes are only allowed to land during the day when visibility is at its best and weather conditions are favorable.
As a result of the required special training and remote location, only 8 pilots in the world are qualified to land at Paro. If this sounds too scary, buck up because if you are planning to visit the Buddhist Kingdom in the Himalayas this airport is the only way to fly in to the country.
The airport has a single, 6,445 feet (1,964 m) asphalt runway. The Airport's facilities include: one passenger terminal with four check-in desks, one gate, one cargo terminal and two aircraft hangars.
There are no reported accidents at Paro which is a testament to the skill of the pilots.
#7 Mataveri International Airport, Easter Island, Chile (IATA: IPC)
Most remote airport
There is nothing particularly dangerous at this airport, unless there is a problem in the air.
Imagine coming in for a landing and something goes wrong... it happens all the time in aviation. So, where is the nearest diversion airport?
If you are headed for the most remote airport in the world on Easter Island in the South Pacific pray you have the fuel to make it another 2,603 km (1,617 mi) over to Mangareva (GMR) in the Gambier Islands, French Polynesia (which has no scheduled air services) or for a serious airport a whole 3,759 km (2,336 mi) to Santiago, Chile (SCL). By comparison the air distance between New York and Los Angeles is 2462 miles, just a little more than the distance between Easter and Santiago!
Mataveri International Airport has a single runway for civil and military use so if you are in the area and can't use that runway, better start praying.
#6 Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba, Netherlands (IATA: SAB)
Shortest Commercial Runway in the World
Why is Saba Airport Dangerous?
While there has never been an accident at the Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport on the Caribbean island of Saba, the very short runway ends on both ends with a cliff that drops into the ocean.
With just 1300 feet of runway and no room for error on either end, landing at Saba feels a little like landing on an aircraft carrier without the arresting devices that catch planes. (The largest US aircraft carriers are about 1,050 feet long).
The airfield is officially closed but is regularly used by small planes that must sign a waiver before being authorized to land. There are only three models of planes allowed to land.
Another view of Saba's Airport-the X marks the runway as closed. It is used all the time though.
#5 Princess Juliana International Airport, Sint Maarten, Kingdom of the Netherlands (IATA: SXM)
Short Runway, Tourists on the Approach Beach
What Makes Princess Juliana International Airport Dangerous?Credit: whichbudget.com
People commonly believe that photos taken by tourists and plane spotters on the French/Dutch Island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten are faked, but this is for real. The runway starts right after a public beach and road. A low fence helps keep people off the runway but you have to wonder how often it gets clipped.
The airport handled 1,647,824 passengers and 103,650 aircraft movements in 2007 so you can actually sit on the beach and get blown away over and over. The thrilling approaches and ease of access for shooting spectacular images, made the airport one of the world's favorite places among planespotters.
Because the approach to Runway 10 is over water, pilots can become disoriented regarding their perceived altitude when operating under visual flight rules. Normal instrument checks, coupled with experience and awareness, mitigate any potential problems. In fact, the departure from Runway 10 presents more "difficulties" than the approach, with a turn required to avoid mountains in the departure path.
There is nothing truly dangerous here for the aircraft, but that sign sure suggests danger to people on the ground. For excitement in the air, this is the gateway to Saba - #6 on this list of dangerous airports.
#4 Tegucigalpa, Honduras (IATA: TGU)
Steep approach, elevation, short, sloping runway and high terrain nearby
Proximity to mountainous terrain, one of the world's shortest runways, and its historically difficult approach to runway 02 makes many think Toncontin is one of the world's most dangerous airports. The airport has a single asphalt runway, which sits at an elevation of 1,005 m (3,297 ft). In 2007 the approach to runway 02 was made significantly easier by work which systematically bulldozed a large portion of the hillside, immediately before the threshold. In May 2009, the southern end of the runway received a 984 ft (300 m) extension, lengthening it to 7,096 ft (2,163 m) from only 6,112 ft (1,863 m) in length. Even with its recent runway extension, Toncontín has one of the shortest international runways in the world.
Boeing 757s are the largest aircraft that normally land at Toncontín but larger aircraft have occasionally landed at Toncontín, such as a Douglas DC-8 on a mission with Orbis International in 1987, and a C-17 Globemaster in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
The History Channel program Most Extreme Airports, ranked Toncontin as the second most dangerous airport in the world.
Accidents at Toncontin International Airport
The approach to Toncontín airport is one of the most difficult in the world to all aircraft, especially in inclement weather conditions. It has had more than its fair share of crashes.
- 7 June 1962: A Curtiss C-46 Commando, (HR-SAL), a cargo flight operated by SAHSA, crash-landed at Toncontín when the left undercarriage collapsed on touchdown. Both crew members survived but the aircraft was a write off.
- 30 June 1966: A Douglas DC-6, (HR-TNG), operated by Transportes Aéreos Nacionales overran the runway on landing and was destroyed by fire.
- 20 February 1967: A Douglas DC-6, (HR-SAS) operated by SAHSA overran the runway whilst attempting to land on runway 01 at Toncontín. According to crew reports, the reverse thrust mechanism failed to engage and the crew had to brake hard causing two tires to catch fire. The nose gear overran the runway into a ditch, followed by the left main gear leg. Out of 50 passengers and 5 crew on board, 4 were killed.
- 25 November 1969: A Douglas DC-3, (HR-ANA), operated by SAHSA crashed while attempting to land on runway 01 at Toncontín. A strong wind gust upset the aircraft during flare, which pushed the aircraft towards the terminal buildings. The crew force-turned away from the buildings and crashed. All 15 passengers and 3 crew survived.
- 26 May 1970: A de Havilland Heron operated by Aero Servicios crashed during approach to runway 19, 1.5 km (0.93 mi) from the runway. The aircraft banked steeply to the left, and crashed in a nearby valley. The cause of the accident was attributed to a stall brought about by turbulent wind conditions at low altitude. 4 passengers and 2 crew were killed.
- 1982: An Aeropostal Douglas DC-9 was hijacked and landed at Toncontín during the night. The kidnappers exchanged the passengers for fuel, leaving them in the terminal. Another DC-9 collected the passengers the next day.
- 25 February 1989: A privately-owned Douglas DC-6 (HR-AKZ) struck a mountain on approach to Toncontín and crashed. All 10 people aboard were killed.
- 21 October 1989: Tan-Sahsa Flight 414, a Boeing 727-200 on approach to runway 01 at Toncontín, crashed into a nearby hill, killing 127 of 146 people aboard. The cause of the crash was attributed to pilot error by disregarding the prescribed approach procedures.
- 1 April 1997: A U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane overshot the runway at Toncontín and came to rest on a civilian highway interchange, where it caught fire. The cause of the crash was attributed to excess speed on landing, resulting in a prolonged flare. The aircraft touched down 2,000 ft (610 m) beyond the runway 02 threshold.
- 30 May 2008: TACA Flight 390, an Airbus A320, overran the runway after landing on runway 02 at Toncontín. The aircraft plunged 20m down an embankment and came to rest on a road. 3 of the 124 people aboard and 2 people on the ground were killed.
- 14 February 2011: Central American Airways Flight 731, a Let L-410 Turbolet, crashed on approach to Toncontin 20 km from the airport, in Las Mesitas, Municipio de Santa Ana. All 14 aboard were killed.
#3 Gibraltar Airport (IATA: GIB)
Planes, Trucks, Cars and Pedestrians
The problems at Gibraltar Airport are different from most of the airports featured here. At 6,000 ft (1,828 m) the runway is plenty long and dead level. 15 ft above sea level presents no special issues and there is nothing remarkable in the weather. No, the problem is that the GIB's runway has a main road passing across it. Instead of being secured behind a fence and vast open areas, the airport is open to the public as cars, trucks and foot traffic cross the runway all day long.
When an aircraft wants to take off or land, barriers are dropped to control the traffic to and from the adjacent border crossing with Spain. Inspection for debris is another serious business since the smallest bolt or piece of trash on the runway can cause serious damage to aircraft.
The History Channel program Most Extreme Airports ranks GIB as the fifth most dangerous airport in the world and the most dangerous in Europe.
Gibraltar Airport has another unusual problem - Spain claims the land belongs to Spain and the airport is built illegally. An agreement to build a second airport terminal in Spain accessed of the British operated runway has not proceeded and the whole airport remains the source of international squabbling.
#2 (tie) Qamdo Bamda Airport, Tibet, PRC (IATA: BPX)
Highest in the world, Longest Runway, Thin Air, Expect to be Dizzy and Have Breathing Trouble.
What makes Qamdo Bamda Airport Dangerous?
A lot of small planes can't fly high enough to reach this airport in Tibet because these Tibetan airports are way up there! Qamdo Bamda Airport is located in Bamda, Qamdo, Tibet and ranks is the highest active airport in the world at an elevation of 4,334 metres (14,219 ft).
The air density is so low at this altitude that planes must use a higher takeoff and landing true airspeed. Basically the planes have to be going much faster then normal to take off and land, requiring the longest publicly used runway in the world - a whopping 5,500 m (18,045 ft). Compare to Saba at just 400 m (1300 ft) with 1000 ft designated "usable".
There is so little oxygen in the air that inbound visitors are warned to move slowly on leaving the plane. Expect to feel light-headed or dizzy.
The lack of flat land in the region resulting in the airport being built 2.5 hours by mountain road from the city of Qamdo it is designed to serve.
By 2014 though, the under construction Nagqu Dagring Airport, also in Tibet, will take the highest airport title at 4,436 m (14,554 ft).
#2 (tie) Courchevel France (IATA: CVF)
Short landing, 18.5% gradient upslope runway, skiers
What Makes Courchevel Dangerous?
Courchevel in the French Alps has very short and steeply sloped runway, with a length of 525 metres (1,722 ft) and a gradient of 18.5% to assist planes in stopping. The airport has a dangerous approach through deep valleys which can only be performed by specially certified pilots. On landing there is no go-around procedure, just a very steep hill which has seen a few accidents since the airport first opened. Larger propeller aircraft such as the Twin Otter and Dash 7 (carrying up to 50 people) have been regular users of the airport over the years, but have since been phased out of use. Smaller Cessnas and helicopters are more often seen today.
The History Channel program Most Extreme Airports, only ranked Courchevel as the 7th most dangerous airport in the world but since watching videos of aircraft movements here scared me, I'm calling it #2.
#1 Tenzing-Hillary Airport (IATA: LUA)
Miss and go off a 2000 ft drop (or hit the mountain)
What Makes Tenzing-Hillary Airport Dangerous?
Named for the first climbers to summit Mount Everest, Tenzing-Hillary Airport was originally called Lukla Airport, and is located in Lukla, Nepal. Hillary also helped get the airport built.
At 9,100 feet (2,800 m) the high elevation dangers include high winds (affecting maneuverability) and cloud cover (affecting visibility) that often result in the closure of the airport, but there is a very special scary aspect to Tenzing-Hillary - one end of the runway ends in a mountain while the other end of the runway ends in a 2000 foot drop!
The airport's paved runway is only accessible to helicopters and small, fixed-wing, short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft. The single runway is 1,500 feet (460 m) long, 65 feet (20 m) wide and has a 12% gradient. It only operates during daylight and there are no landing aids. All aircraft must land heading north into high terrain and takeoff south over the 2,000 feet (610 m) drop. There is no opportunity for a go around so pilots must hit it right every time.
Many consider Lukla the most dangerous airport in the world.
Accidents at Tenzing-Hillary
- On 15 October 1973, on landing at the airport, a Royal Nepal Airlines DHC-6 Twin Otter 300, registration 9N-ABG, was damaged beyond repair. The three crew and three passengers were unhurt.
- On 9 June 1991, flying from Kathmandu, a Royal Nepal Airlines DHC-6 Twin Otter 300, registration 9N-ABA, crashed at the airport while attempting to land following an unstabilized approach in bad weather. All three crew and fourteen passengers were unhurt.
- On 26 September 1992, a Royal Air Nepal Harbin Yunshuji Y-12-11 registered 9N-ACI faltered during take-off and was damaged beyond repair. All on board (twelve passengers and two crew) survived.
- On 25 May 2004, while on approach to the airport, a Yeti Airlines DHC-6 Twin Otter Series 300 (registration 9N-AFD) flying from Kathmandu crashed into Lamjura Hill in heavy cloud. No passengers were on board, but all three crew members were killed. The Nepalese accident investigation committee concluded that the captain provided inaccurate information as regards his position to the Area Control Centre.
- On 1 October 2004, on landing at the airport, a Sita Air Dornier Do 228 suffered a collapse of its nose gear and slid along the runway, blocking it once it had come to rest. The airport was closed for two days.
- On 30 June 2005, a Gorkha Airlines Dornier Do 228 skidded off the runway while attempting to land. The nine passengers and three crew suffered minor injuries. The aircraft was reportedly withdrawn from use and written off after the accident.
- On 8 October 2008, Yeti Airlines Flight 103, a DHC-6 Twin Otter, crashed on final approach and caught fire, killing eighteen passengers and crew. The aircraft's captain was the only survivor.
- On 25 August 2010, Agni Air Flight 101 crashed at Shikharpur while returning to Kathmandu after bad weather had prevented it from reaching Lukla. All eleven passengers and three crew perished.
- On 12 October 2010, a Sita Air Dornier Do 228 (registration 9N-AHB) lost braking control and impacted the wall-end of the runway during landing. All passengers and crew on board survived without injuries and the aircraft received damage to its nose.
History Channel's World's Most Extreme Airports (1 Hr 27 min)
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