To reach some of the world’s most beautiful and remote locations, tourists may have to deal with a few scary takeoffs and landings along the way. Many of the airports on this list got their frightening reputations because their runways sit at high elevation, are too short, or made to adapt to their natural (but precarious) surroundings. See which white-knuckle, nail-biting airport approaches made the list.
1. Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Maarten
Maho Beach is famous for being literally steps away from the runway of Princess Juliana International Airport, with planes flying very low over tourists to touch down as close as possible to the beginning of Runway 10. Due to the short runway length (7,150 feet), planes on their final approach need to fly over the beach at minimal altitude, and pilots have been known to become disoriented regarding their perceived altitude when operating under visual flight rules because the approach to the runway is over water, according to the Daily Mail. And it gets even scarier. The departure is even more difficult than the approach, with a turn required to avoid mountains in the departure path. While being very close to planes landing and taking off can seem thrilling—and can make for a great "selfie"—there are signs on the beach warning tourists of the risk of jet blast. In 2012, a video of a tourist injured by jet blast at Maho Beach went viral.
2. Hechi Airport, China
Hechi Airport in China's southern Guangxi province cost around $136 million to complete and was built at 2,200ft above sea level, on top of 65 mountains, according to the Telegraph. Engineers leveled off the mountain tops to create a 1.4 mile-long and 150ft-wide runway with a 1,000ft sheer drop on one side. The runway is so narrow that it can only accommodate three flights an hour (the mainland's busiest airports handle 20 times that number on a hourly basis), reported the Daily Mail.
3. Gibraltar International Airport, Gibraltar
Pilots landing at Gibraltar International Airport, in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, need to not only worry about landing the plane safely on the air strip that has water on both sides, they also have to worry about car traffic. The 6,000-feet runway has the Mediterranean ocean on its eastern side and the Bay of Gibraltar on its western side. And if that wasn’t enough for pilots, the airport is bisected by the tiny peninsula’s busiest road. According to the airport’s official site, only three airlines fly into Gibraltar: British Airways, easyJet and Monarch.
4. Toncontin International Airport, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Toncontin International Airport in Honduras has the terrifying airport trifecta – a short runway, mountainous terrain and wind gusts due to its high altitude. The airport’s notorious runway "02" is one of the world’s shortest for big commercial jets coming in at 6,112 feet, according to Jalopnik. The mountainous terrain also forces pilots approaching the runway to make a sharp turn in order to line up with the runway. While many pilots have managed the tricky approach, in May 2008 an Airbus A320 on May 30, 2008 overshot the runway killing five. In May 2009 the airport received a runway extension.
5. Barra International Airport, Barra, Scotland
At Barra International Airport on the Outer Hebridean Island of Barra in Scotland the runway is the beach. Airplane landings at the unique airport are dependent upon the tide – at high tide the runway is completely underwater. According to the airport’s website, when the runways aren’t being used for landings, the bay of Traigh Mhor is often occupied by kite surfers.
6. Congonhas Airport, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Congohas Airport, unlike most airports, is located in a highly populated area near Sao Paulo, making takeoffs and landings challenging for pilots. Slippery runways have also troubled the airport. In 2007 a TAM Airlines Airbus A320 overran the runway after landing on the wet strip at Congonha. The airplane crossed into a roadway and crashed into a warehouse, killing all 186 passengers and crew, according to Aviation Safety Network. The airport implemented a new drain system for rainwater later that year and limited the weight of aircrafts flying into the airport.
7. Madeira Airport, Santa Cruz, Madeira
Even the most experienced pilot may have trouble landing on this next runway located in the Portuguese island of Madeira. An international hub, the Maderia Airport, also called the Funchal Airport, was known for its extremely narrow runway, which required pilots to fly toward the mountains then quickly turn and descend in the final approach, according to Travel and Leisure. It wasn’t until 1977 after a Boeing 727 jet overshot the runway on its descent, hydroplaned and crashed, leaving 131 people dead, that the runway was remodeled and made larger, according to the Associated Press.
8. Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Nepal
Also known as Lukla Airport, Tenzing-Hillary Airport was renamed in 2008 in honor of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The airport is known as the place where most people start the climb to Mount Everest Base Camp, and is also known to be one of the world's most dangerous airports. Nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, the airport sits at an altitude of 9,000 feet and is subject to high winds, cloud cover and changing visibility. Takeoff is particularly scary. The 1500-foot runway is at a 12 percent incline, and abruptly drops off 2,000 feet to a river valley below.
9. Juancho E Yrausquin Airport, Saba
Landing at this airport is not for the faint of heart. The airport’s runway is located on a cliff that drops into the Caribbean Sea on three sides and is flanked by high hills on the other. Jet airplanes are not allowed to land at the airport due to its incredibly short runway, which is 1,300-feet long, according to Air Gorilla. The most common planes to land at the Caribbean airport are Twin Otter propeller planes.
10. Reagan National Airport, Washington, D.C./Arlington, Virginia
Pilots flying into Reagan National Airport have to dodge several no-fly zones located over our nation’s capital just to land. Most of central Washington is prohibited airspace up to 18,000 feet so pilots are forced to follow the Potomac River in the "River Visual" approach, according to the FAA. While following the Potomac River pilots have to perform a 30 to 40 degree turn while close to the river to line up with the runway. This maneuver is what has caused some to place the airport on their scariest airports lists.
11. Saint Barthélemy Airport, Saint-Barthelemy
There is very little room for error when landing at Saint Barthélemy Airport, located in the luxurious French village of St. Jean in the Caribbean islands. Also known as St. Barth's Gustaf Airport, only small commercial and charter planes can land on the short 2,100 foot airstrip, according to PrivateFly.com. Planes usually descend extremely close over the heads of beach goers and nearby traffic. However, descending too fast can land your plane straight into the St. Jean’s beach, according to AirfareWatchDog.com.
12. Courchevel Airport, Courchevel, France
Ski-in/Ski-out? At Courchevel Airport tourists can hit the French Alps immediately after they get off the plane. There are ski runs adjacent to the 6,588 feet-high runway, according to the airport’s website. The airport is considered dangerous due to its upslope runway and the ever-changing weather conditions in the French Alps. If the airport looks familiar it is because it was used in the opening scene of the 1997 James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies."
13. Wilkins Runway, Antarctica
This runway is constructed completely of ice and is operated by Australia to reach the country’s base at Casey Station. The runway is carved into glacial ice and only operates in the Antarctic summer. The first flight to the runway was made on Jan. 11, 2008, carrying 12 scientists, six passengers and Australia’s Environment Minister Peter Garrett, according to MSNBC. The flights are not available to tourists and are used primarily to transport scientists. The U.S. operates two airfields on Antarctica including one constructed of blue ice as well, according to the National Science Foundation.
14. Chubu Centrair International Airport, Aichi Prefecture, Japan
This airport is located on an artificial "D"-shaped island in Japan. As planes approach the airport it could appear as if the plane is landing in Ise Bay instead of on the island. Chubu Centrair International Airport is Japan’s third off-shore airport and is the second airport built on a manmade island in Japan.
15. Old Mariscal Sucre Airport, Quito, Ecuador
Before February 2013, landing at Ecuador's capital can be a heart-stopping experience. High altitude, a small runway and nearby volcanoes made it one of Latin America's most challenging airports for pilots, according to USA Today. In addition, the airport sat at an elevation of 8,700 feet, an altitude that diminishes aircraft performance on takeoff and landing. Since it opened in 1960, Mariscal Sucre has seen 10 serious accidents, including one in 1984, when a DC-8 crashed into neighboring homes and 49 people were killed. Landing in Quito now is less of a hair-raising experience since the airport, still named Mariscal Sucre, moved to a new, suburban location. Its control tower is now the tallest in Latin America, and its runway (at 2.5 miles) is the longest of any international airport in Latin America, according to the Economist.
16. Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong
This Hong Kong airport was closed in 1998 due to its dangerous approach, as planes had to avoid skyscrapers and mountains while trying to land at Kai Tak. Runway 13 was an infamous approach among passengers and pilots. First the airplane would pass over the harbor then the very densely populated area of Western Kowloon, according to Tnooz. After reaching a hill with a checkered red and white sign pilots had to make a 47-degree right turn to line up with the runway and land.
17. Paro Airport, Bhutan
The only international airport in Bhutan, Paro Airport is located in a deep valley in the bank of the river Paro Chhu at an elevation of 7,300 feet. Sharp peaks as high as 18,000 surround the airport, considered so challenging that only eight pilots are qualified to land there, according to the Daily Mail.The runway is just 6,500-ft long, one of the few in the world shorter than their elevation above sea level, and flights are only allowed during the day and under visual meteorological conditions. Although passengers have described landings at Paro as "terrifying," the views over Paro river and the Himalayas are also considered some of the most breathtaking.
18. Male International Airport, Maldives
The Maldives is a gateway to paradise, but landing at Male International Airport (also called Ibrahim Nasir International Airport) could be a daunting experience. It has one asphalt runway, which was built on its very own atoll, Hulhule, and is only six feet above sea level, according to CNN. Sounds scary? "A minor miscalculation could send a plane careening off into the Indian Ocean," says the BBC.
19. Narsarsuaq Airport, Greenland
Some say the approach to the Narsarsuaq Airport, located in a settlement in the Kujalleq municipality in southern Greenland, is one of the most beautiful. But pilots also find it tricky. Landing involves flying up a fjord, and if that's not enough of a challenge, severe turbulence and wind shear may be present even on the calmest days, according to the Telegraph. There's also the risk of icebergs drifting into the departure/arrival path, a reader told Jaunted. Only daytime take-offs and landings are permitted at the airport.
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