The World's Scariest Runways
It’s 10:45 a.m. on a cloudy day, and the crew of Druk Air flight KB205 is preparing to land at their home airport of Paro, Bhutan. Suddenly, ominous warnings start blaring, alerting them that their flight angle is all wrong and their rate of descent is far too fast. They fly a series of unconventional right-and-left banks through a narrow channel of hillsides before centering the swaying jet and putting it on the tarmac.
An emergency situation? Not quite. In fact, this is a completely normal—however nail-biting—landing at Paro Airport, set 7,300 feet above sea level. Because of the airport’s tightly cropped valley, surrounded by 16,000-foot-high serrated Himalayan peaks, this drama replays itself on every flight.
There’s a sobering saying among pilots: "Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing." And it’s not until you fly into places like Paro, or Toncontìn Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, that the adage starts to make sense. Both are surrounded by mountains, and Toncontìn has one of the world’s shortest international runways; each requires a series of hard last-minute banks. It’s no wonder both give even the most seasoned pilots—not to mention their passengers—the sweats.
While Bhutan is the most extreme example—only eight pilots in the world are qualified to fly into Paro—a number of the world’s airports, from St. Maarten in the Caribbean to Madeira Airport in Funchal, can present challenges for pilots. "A lot of these airports require additional training and route familiarization because they’re so crazy," says one commercial pilot who flies international routes.
According to aviation experts, mitigating factors range from the truncated length of runways to unique atmospheric and meteorological conditions, dramatic geographical settings, heavy air traffic, or a combination thereof. "Sometimes it’s just the way the airport is laid out that makes it a pain," says the pilot, referring to whether an airport is situated askew.
One such tricky spot: Reagan International Airport, in Washington, D.C. That’s not because of strange Potomac River winds or the pressure of being watched by statues of past presidents. It’s the excess of government buildings and restricted airspace that makes setting down here like threading a needle with a 200-ton hunk of metal.
In fact, cities are often tough: for years (73, to be exact), the honor of the world’s most harrowing airport was reserved for Hong Kong’s Kai Tak, whose single runway was jammed in between Victoria Harbor and densely populated Kowloon. Pilots had to battle crosswinds and fly a complicated curved approach, all while dodging mountains and high-rises. Kai Tak was shuttered in 1998 and replaced by a modern mega-port located on a reclaimed island out in the South China Sea. But many locales don’t have that luxury, and continue to operate with their existing facilities, many of which include palm sweat-inducing approaches and photo-worthy opportunities.
And it’s not always the landing that’s the stuff of lore. Matekane Air Strip, in the tiny African kingdom of Lesotho, features a stunted 1,312-foot-long runway perched at the edge of a couloir that sits at 7,550 feet. According to celebrated bush pilot Tom Claytor, depending on the wind during takeoff, it’s entirely possible for the aircraft not to be airborne by the end of the airstrip. "Instead," he says, "you shoot off the end of the airstrip, then drop down the 2,000-foot cliff face until you start flying."
It’s enough to make you take the train.
Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Maarten
Who Flies There: All major U.S. airlines, as well as Paris-based charter carrier Corsairfly, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and a handful of regional operators.
Why It’s Harrowing: The length of the runway—just 7,152 feet—is perfectly fine for small or medium-size jets, but as the second-busiest airport in the Eastern Caribbean, it regularly welcomes so-called heavies—long-haul wide-body jetliners like Boeing 747’s and Airbus A340’s—from Europe, which fly in improbably low over Maho Beach and skim just over the perimeter fence.
Toncontín Airport, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Who Flies There: American Airlines, Continental, Copa Airlines, TACA, Islena Airlines, and Aerolineas Sosa.
Why It’s Harrowing: Having negotiated the rough-hewn mountainous terrain, pilots must execute a dramatic 45-degree, last-minute bank to the left just minutes prior to touching down in a bowl-shaped valley on a runway just 6,112 feet in length. The airport, at an altitude of 3,294 feet, can accommodate aircraft no larger than Boeing 757’s.
Gibraltar Airport, Gibraltar
Who Flies There: British Airways, EasyJet, Iberia Airlines, and Monarch Airlines.
Why It’s Harrowing: Pinched in by the Mediterranean on its eastern flank and the Bay of Gibraltar on its western side, the airport’s truncated runway stretches just 6,000 feet and requires pinpoint precision. And upon hitting the tarmac, pilots must quickly and fully engage the auto-brakes. Yet as nerve-wracking as the landing can be, it’s never guaranteed. Because of Gibraltar’s unique topography, the British colony endures unusual localized weather patterns that cause flights to be diverted to nearby Tangiers, Faro, and Malaga.
Madeira Airport, Funchal
Who Flies There: Most scheduled (and many charter) European carriers.
Why It’s Harrowing: Wedged in by mountains and the Atlantic, Madeira Airport requires a clockwise approach for which pilots are specially trained. Despite a unique elevated extension that was completed back in 2000 and now expands the runway length to what should be a comfortable 9,000 feet, the approach to Runway 05 remains a hair-raising affair that pilots absolutely dread. They must first point their aircraft at the mountains and, at the last minute, bank right to align with the fast-approaching runway.
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba
Who Flies There: Windward Islands Airways (Winair).
Why It’s Harrowing: Perched on a precipitous gale-battered peninsula on the island’s northeastern corner, the airport requires pilots to tackle blustery trade winds, occasional spindrift, and their own uneasy constitutions as they maneuver in for a perfect landing (there’s no margin for error) on a runway that’s just 1,300 feet long. “Shorting this means ending up in the cliffs,” says one pilot matter-of-factly, “while overshooting it means an uncomfortable go-around. Either way, you’ll want to bring the Dramamine.”
Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong
Who Flies There: Former home to Cathay Pacific; also Dragonair, Air Hong Kong, Hong Kong Airways
Why It’s Harrowing: Although it closed in 1998, this infamous urban airport will go down in history as one of the scariest of all time. Planes would practically graze skyscrapers and jagged mountains surrounding Kowloon Bay as they took off and landed on a single runway that shot headlong into Victoria Harbour.
Barra Airport, Barra, Scotland
Who Flies There: British Airways and Flybe.
Why It’s Harrowing: Have you ever landed on a beach? The airport on the tiny Outer Hebridean Island of Barra is actually a wide shallow bay onto which scheduled planes land, making it a curiosity in the world of aviation. Admittedly, the roughness of the landings is determined by how the tide goes out to sea. Locals, who are avid cockle pickers, steer clear of the vast swath of hardened sand when the wind sock is up—a sign that specially rigged Twin Otter propeller aircraft are incoming.
John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York
Who Flies There: All major U.S., European, and Asian airlines.
Why It’s Harrowing: Parkway Visual—a.k.a. the Canarsie Approach—is the especially daunting flyway here, since pilots have to avoid interfering with flights into New York’s two other close-by airports, LaGuardia and Newark. Set up in 1964 as a noise-abatement measure to pacify angry residents, this approach forces pilots to have a reported 1,500-foot ceiling and a five-mile visibility for their circular approach before lining up with runway 13L, with the threatening waters of Jamaica Bay beckoning at the runway’s end.
Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla, Nepal
Who Flies There: Yeti Airlines
Why It’s Harrowing: Recently renamed after the famous Everest climber-conquerers, mountainous Tenzing-Hillary Airport not only has one of the steepest uphill runways in the world, but its drop-off, into the wind shear-prone Himalayan valley below, is sure to give even the heartiest mountaineers pause. Here, daily 30-minute flights from Katmandu are only allowed to land during daylight, weather permitting.
Who Flies There: Private aircraft
Why It’s Harrowing: Part of massive Les Trois Vallées ski resort in the French Alps, Courchevel’s airport is notorious for its super-short ski slope-esque runway (it’s just 1,722 feet), which is punctuated with a vertical mountainside drop. Ice and unpredictable winds are always a concern for pilots, who must meet rigorous training requirements before being able to land in this stunning winter wonderland.
Tioman Island, Malaysia
Who Flies There: Berjaya Air, Malaysian Airlines
Why It’s Harrowing: Landing on this volcanic South China Sea isle—referred to as giant sleeping dragon for its emerald ridges and misty plumes—has set many a pilot’s and passenger’s hair on end. Its approach, directly into a mountain with a 90-degree turn to align with the runway, ends short with a cliff—if you don’t jam on the brakes you’re a goner.
Paro Airport, Bhutan
Who Flies There: Druk Air, the national carrier.
Why It’s Harrowing: Tucked into a tightly cropped valley and surrounded by 16,000-foot-high serrated Himalayan peaks, this is arguably the world's most forbidding airport to fly into. It requires specially trained pilots to maneuver into this stomach-dropping aerie by employing visual flying rules and then approaching and landing through a narrow channel of vertiginous tree-covered hillsides.
Reagan National Airport, Washington, D.C.
Who Flies There: All major U.S. airlines.
Why It’s Harrowing: Flying around Washington, D.C., is fraught with peril—just ask the pilot of a small aircraft that drifted into restricted airspace in March 2008, causing Congress to be evacuated and military planes to be scrambled. Located smack in the center of two overlapping air-exclusion zones, Reagan National requires pilots flying the so-called River Visual into the airport to follow the Potomac while steering clear of sensitive sites such as the Pentagon and CIA headquarters before making a steep turn and landing on this natural peninsula. Taking off, too, is a white-knuckle event in which pilots are required to climb quickly and execute a steep left bank to avoid flying over the White House.