Brace! Brace! Brace! 10 Scary Airports for Landings and Takeoffs

Brace! Brace! Brace! 10 Scary Airports for Landings and Takeoffs

A commercial airline lands at Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten, flying close enough to the beach that sunbathers get a good sandblasting. Adam Mukamal/Getty Images

Thanks to factors ranging from improvements in aircraft technology to more efficient air traffic control and better training for pilots and mechanics, air travel has become progressively safer over the decades. The number of fatal accidents involving jet airliners worldwide has dropped from 40 per million flights in 1959 to just 0.05 deaths per million flights in 2021, according to global data gathered by aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

Though airline travel is extremely safe, mishaps do still occur, and the riskiest part of any flight remains the final approach and landing. Those phases account for more than half of all fatalities, even though they account for just a few minutes out of a typical trip.

Pilots have to be especially careful when they land at some airports, which are located in areas where location, terrain, weather conditions and/or quirks in design can make their job even more difficult.

“Obviously, when you go into those airports, you do your homework prior to going in,” explains Gregory Zahornacky. He’s an assistant professor in the Aeronautical Science department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and a former airline captain with more than 15,000 hours of flying time.

Zahornacky says that the U.S. has some airports that are challenging for pilots. New York’s LaGuardia Airport has earned that reputation because of its short runways, while Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport also has that issue, plus a difficult location. “You have the Anacostia and the Potomac rivers,” Zahornacky says. “You have all that restricted airspace in there, too, with the Pentagon and the White House.”

There are places such as Denver International Airport, where pilots have to be aware of how the elevation affects the plane’s performance, Zahornacky notes. He also mentions the “precipitous terrain” at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport as challenging for pilots. The latter is situated in a mountainous area with unpredictable winds and at times intense fog, according to this article from the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association, a group for pilots of smaller general aviation planes.

Airlines provide pilots with extensive information about airports with such challenges and require them to review it before flying to them, according to Zahornacky. In some cases, airlines require pilots to have special training to land. “You need to get the experience with someone who has already gone in there,” he explains.

But the U.S. isn’t the only place where there are airport runways that could make you lose your lunch. Here are 10 in other parts of the world, in no particular order, with characteristics that test pilots’ skills and preparation.


Tenzing-Hillary (Lukla) Airport, Lukla, Nepal

Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Maarten

Courchevel Altiport, Courchevel, France

Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, Leh, India

Paro International Airport, Paro, Bhutan

St. Helena Airport, St. Helena

Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba

Gibraltar International Airport, Gibraltar

São Paulo Congonhas Airport, São Paulo, Brazil

Phoenix Airfield, Ross Island, Antarctica

1. Tenzing-Hillary (Lukla) Airport, Lukla, Nepal

The runway at Tenzing-Hillary (Lukla) Airport in Nepal seems to drop off into nothing. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 4.0)

Built in 1964 under the guidance of Sir Edmund Hillary, this airport provides access to the base camp at Mt. Everest, according to Yahoo News, which also notes that its elevation of 9,383 feet (2,860 meters) means that pilots have to fly at higher speeds to contend with lower air density. The airport’s tiny 1,729-foot-long (527-meter-long) runway is located on a cliffside and slants upward to help planes slow down, according to an August 2022 CNN story. Additionally, as a government report on a 2017 crash there noted: “Meteorological condition of Lukla is very unpredictable.” Here’s the airport’s profile in the Aviation Safety Network database.

2. Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Maarten

Landing at this Caribbean airport, which opened at its present location back in 1964, means flying in over a public beach, low enough that “sunbathers get a good blast of wind and sand whenever a plane arrives,” according to travel website Despite appearances, there’s never been a landing accident at Princess Juliana, according to the Aviation Safety Network’s profile.

3. Courchevel Altiport, Courchevel, France

The snow covered runway and apron at Couchevel Altiport stands at an altitude of 6,561 feet (2,000 meters) in the French Alps. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Located in the French Alps, Courchevel Altiport has a runway that’s just 1,762 feet (537 meters) long, with a steep 18.6 percent uphill gradient to help planes decelerate as they land. In order to use the airfield, pilots must have special qualifications, including passing a test by a mountain flight instructor, and keeping up their rating by flying there at least once every six months. Flying magazine notes that “caution, dedicated training, and careful planning are key to enjoying this runway cradled in the Alps.”

4. Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, Leh, India

Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, India, is available for morning landings only due to strong afternoon winds. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Located in the city of Leh, Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, which is situated 10,682 feet (3,256 meters) above sea level, is surrounded by mountains and is beset by such strong winds in the afternoons that flights with specially trained pilots land only in the morning. According to the airport’s Aviation Safety Network profile, the airport hasn’t had a fatal accident in its vicinity since 1979, when it was a military base.

5. Paro International Airport, Paro, Bhutan

As the only international airport for the small nation situated in the Himalayas, Paro has an elevation of 7,364 feet (2,244.5 meters) above sea level. Landings are only permitted in good visibility, and aircraft must navigate between hills and over houses before making a curve to get to the runway, according to CNN and Forbes. In 2020, only 20 pilots were approved to land there, but neither the Aviation Safety Network nor the Bureau of Aircraft Incidents Archives show any accidents.

6. St. Helena Airport, St. Helena

This remote British island in the Atlantic is the place where Napoleon was exiled after his final defeat at Waterloo. It wasn’t until 2016 that St. Helena completed its own airport, but concerns about wind conditions caused by the island’s rugged topography required additional testing and delayed its opening until 2017. Only pilots with special training can land on St. Helena’s 6,070-foot (1,850-meter) runway. There haven’t been any reported mishaps.

7. Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba

The runway at Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport in Saba is so small that only specially trained pilots are allowed to use it. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 2.0)

This tiny island in the Caribbean had its silhouette used in the original “King Kong” movie in 1933. The airport has the world’s shortest commercial runway, just 1,300 feet (400 meters) in length, with sheer drops into the sea at either end, and only an elite group of specially trained pilots land there. T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I Survived the Saba Landing” have long been a popular item on the island, but the Aviation Safety Network’s profile doesn’t list any actual accidents.

8. Gibraltar International Airport, Gibraltar

This airport, built in 1939, has a 5,500-foot (1,676-meter) runway with water on both sides, which compels pilots to hit the brakes quickly after landing. But to complicate things even more, the runway intersects with a busy street that has to be closed whenever a plane is landing. While that might seem hazardous, the airport has a remarkably good safety record, with no landing accidents since August 1951, according to the Aviation Safety Network’s profile.

9. São Paulo Congonhas Airport, São Paulo, Brazil

A TAM airlines A320 passenger aircraft crashed while attempting to land at Congonhas airport in São Paulo, Brazil, July 17, 2007. The plane with 187 people on board crashed into a gas station after skidding off a wet runway. ERNESTO RODRIGUES/AFP via Getty Images

Built in 1936, this airport has been enveloped by the growth of São Paulo, so that aircraft are flying over rooftops practically until they reach the runway. The airport was the scene of a July 2007 airliner crash that killed all 187 people aboard and 12 people on the ground. Since then, safety improvements have been made, including drainage grooves in the runway surface to reduce slipperiness and the installation of an Engineering Material Arresting System (EMAS) to prevent aircraft from overrunning the runway.

10. Phoenix Airfield, Ross Island, Antarctica

An Ilyushin Il-76 of Air Almaty taking off from Phoenix Airfield. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

The other airports on this list have paved runways. But at Phoenix Airfield, created in 2017 to provide access to the U.S. research center at McMurdo Station, on the south tip of Ross Island, pilots land on a runway made of compacted snow, which forms a hard surface that won’t easily melt. Besides the unusual surface, pilots have to contend with unpredictable weather and nighttime landings without runway lights during the southernmost continent’s six months of darkness each year. Australia recently abandoned a plan to build a paved runway in Antarctica because of environmental concerns. Despite the risks of flying in Antarctica, the last fatal landing accident anywhere on the continent was in 1966, according to the Aviation Safety Network database.

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