Oddly short and precariously placed runways, water on all sides, mountain access, and inclement weather. Usually, these are things to avoid when landing a plane, but some of the most challenging places to reach tend to be unique and beautiful! Check out 10 of the hardest airports to land at and discover why people brave the uneasy landings to get there.
Barra Airport, Scotland
Barra Airport is located on the beach of a small island off the coast of Scotland. These runways are under the sea at high tide, so flight times vary with the tide. The airport opened in 1936 and has two flights daily to Glasgow, its only destination. When the airport closes, the beach is open to the public. Barra island is a distinctive destination with beaches, hills, machair, and moors.
Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Nepal
Tenzing-Hillary Airport is in Lukla, Nepal, just a short distance from Mount Everest Base Camp, and is one of the hardest airports to land at. It's nestled in mountainous terrain that often experiences high winds and rain. If that wasn't challenging enough, the runway has an 11.7% gradient and ends with a cliff drop-off. The airport was built under the supervision of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary (the first documented successful climbers of Mount Everest). Its position is prime for starting the journey toward base camp and receives over 100,000 passengers a year.
Paro Airport, Bhutan
Paro International Airport is the only international airport in Bhutan. It is tucked into a deep valley on the bank of the Paro Chhu river and is surrounded by mountains up to 18,000 feet tall. Flights are restricted to daylight hours for safety reasons, and only eight pilots are certified to land at the airport. On average, six flights arrive per day. It's worth the journey because Bhutan is known for its fortresses, monasteries, and picturesque landscapes.
Wellington Airport, New Zealand
Wellington Airport in New Zealand opened in 1959 and is on a narrow stretch of land between Wellington proper and the Miramar Peninsula. Wellington is known as one of the windiest cities in the world, and the unpredictable wind and short runway make it a contender on this list. Over one million passengers brave the wind and turbulence each year to arrive in Wellington for its vibrant craft beer scene, good shopping, excellent restaurants, and museums.
Courchevel Altiport, France
Courchevel Altiport is in a ski resort in the French Alps. It is classified as an altiport because of its mountainous surroundings and slanted airstrip. The 18.6% gradient on the short runway assists the airplane's momentum during takeoff and helps to slow down the aircraft while landing. Courchevel Altiport is unique because ski runs are right next to the runway. Roughly 6,000 round-trip flights happen in this beautiful ski resort during winter.
Princess Juliana Airport, Sint Maarten
Princess Juliana Airport in Sint Maarten is on the Dutch side of the island, close to the shore of Simpson Bay Lagoon. Landing on the island is tricky because one end of the runway is incredibly close to the water and skims over a beach packed with tourists. However, once the flight lands, it's a quick trip to a beautiful beach! Tourists snap pictures of the low-flying airplanes over the crowded beach, showing just how close the runway is to public areas.
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba Island
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport on Saba Island in the Caribbean Sea has the world's shortest commercial runway at only 1,312 ft. Only small prop planes can land, and they must sign a waiver. This island is so remote the whole village came to see the first airplane landing in 1959. Nicknamed the "unspoiled queen," Saba is considered one of the last places of the "old" Caribbean and maintains its slow and quiet Caribbean lifestyle.
Madeira Airport, Portugal
Madeira Airport, now named after soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, is on the island of Madeira, Portugal. The airport opened in July of 1964 with two 5,200 feet runways, and the most popular route from Madeira is Lisbon. Pilots must complete extra training to land at the airport to navigate the weather and rough terrain as it sits right on the side of a cliff. Hills, cliffs, the coast, and mountains combine with strong and unpredictable winds from the Atlantic Ocean, and narrow runways make this one of the hardest airports to land at. But despite a tricky landing, the island is known for its wine, pebbly beaches, botanical gardens, and breathtaking harbor.
McMurdo Station Airport, Antarctica
McMurdo Station Airport in Antarctica only operates a few months of the year but is a significant location for Antarctic researchers. The two runways are made entirely of snow: 26 feet of compacted snow is on top of 8-10 feet of ice and floating over 1,800 feet of water. The airfield must be continually maintained and only works for ski-equipped aircrafts. The runways continuously and slowly slide towards the sea and have been reconstructed three times since opening. Pilots responsible for landing are trained to land blind because of the lack of sunlight during chunks of the year.
Santos Dumont Airport, Brazil
Santos Dumont Airport, Brazil, is the second major airport in Rio de Janeiro and is one of the world's busiest airports. It is one of the hardest airports to land at because of the short runway that starts and ends near the water. Santos Dumont has flight restrictions, so only 19 flights can arrive or depart in an hour. Visitors frequently brave the daunting runway to come for Brazil's famous coffee and beaches!
Long Story Short…
Brave and highly-trained pilots land at these airports daily. If you want to travel the world and feel armrest-gripping excitement even before arriving, consider visiting these places!
Written by Andrea Jeschke