Fasten your seatbelts.
Do you know those people who clap when a plane lands at an airport? Seems crazy to appreciate a quick, painless landing, but sometimes the round of applause is well-deserved. Not all airports offer an easy-breezy touchdown to pilots—some need special training and licenses. Even then, it’s a feat to maneuver cliffs, short runways, and wind shears. These are the kind of flights where passengers grip their armrests until they’re white-knuckled, their stomachs churning due to turbulence. These are the world’s most dangerous airports, but what dramatic take-offs and landings–you can enjoy magnificent views if you can bear to keep your eyes open!
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Tenzing-Hillary Airport, or Lukla Airport, is located 9,383 feet above sea level, surrounded by mountainous terrain. Its short runway is 1,729 feet (it’s common to have 7,000-10,000-foot runways) and sits on the edge of a cliff, with a 2,000-foot drop on one side and a stone wall on the other. The weather is highly unpredictable in the mountains, so the flights only operate in the morning. It’s common for flights to get canceled due to sudden snow or fog. A pilot may even decide to return to Kathmandu if the weather seems unfavorable because once you start the descent, you have to land. Only small planes and helicopters can land and take-off here and captains need special training, including at least 100 short take-offs and landings, one year of experience in Nepal in such conditions, and 10 successful flights to Lukla with a certified instructor.
Even so, it has a history of plane crashes. In 2019, three people died when a plane veered off the runway and hit a helicopter. In 2008, 18 people died when a plane tried to land here. More incidents have happened.
Why do people still get on this flight?
A town with fewer than 500 people, Lukla is a popular starting point for the Mount Everest trek. There are other ways to reach the town, including a bus ride, a private helicopter, and of course trekking, but the 40-minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla is a time-saver.
Princess Juliana International Airport
WHERE: St. Maarten
This airport on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten sits right next to a public beach and flies so low that sunbathers get a good blast of wind and sand whenever a plane arrives. The runway is short at 7,100 feet, with the beach on one side and mountains on the other. Aviation geeks flock to the beach to get selfies of the dramatic take-offs and landings. However, there are numerous signs that warn people to stay back as jet blast from planes can topple them over and cause injuries. And it did in 2017 when a woman died due to head injuries after getting knocked over while she was standing by the fence of the airport.
Paro International Airport
What do you say about an airport that’s so difficult to navigate that only 17 pilots are allowed to land here? Paro International Airport is Bhutan’s only international airport and it is nestled in the Himalayas, 7,364 feet above sea level. Arrivals and departures are allowed only during the day and even then, pilots need to be highly skilled to keep the aircraft’s nose from rubbing on the mountains. They maneuver the plane at a 45-degree angle and avoid cliff-top homes to make a successful descent.
Once you’re out and breathing in the fresh air, you can take in the beauty of the 18,000-foot mountain peaks that surround this small airport with a 6,500-foot runway.
Also known as Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport, Madeira Airport can cause the most confident fliers to appreciate the ground beneath their feet after touchdown. The short airstrip is nicely placed between cliffs and the ocean, and it is extended with 180 columns in the water to make it safe for planes to land. The dangerous Atlantic winds add to the drama and it’s notorious for its turbulent landings that can shake anyone up. No wonder very few pilots are cleared to land here.
There are multiple reasons why this airport in the southern part of Greenland is scary. It’s situated amid Fjords—great for a picture but not so perfect for planes. The approach to the 6,000-foot runway through fjords is tricky and pilots need to make a 90-degree turn, which can be challenging due to strong winds. Then there are nearby volcanoes that erupt ash and reduce visibility. It can be treacherous to fly here at night, so only daytime landings and take-offs are permitted.
Gibraltar International Airport
When landing at Gibraltar, you’re heading towards a monolith. The runway is between a rock and a bustling city and ends abruptly with the sea on either side, so pilots have to brake the moment they touch the ground. But that’s not the scariest bit. What puts Gibraltar on this list is the fact that the runway cuts through a busy street, so the road has to be closed off every time a plane arrives or takes off.
Skiers experience a spike in their adrenaline even before they get on the slopes of the French Alps, thanks to the Courchevel Airport. It is 6,500 feet above sea level and planes face an obstacle course of mountains and valleys to get there. The runway only stretches 1,700 feet and it’s also quite steep, with a downward gradient of 18.5%, so take-offs are also nerve-wracking. There are no lighting aids here, so flying during bad weather conditions is unsafe.
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport
If you’re a nervous flier, it makes sense to take a boat to reach Saba island from St. Maarten, instead of the 15-minute flight. Saba’s airport is known for its extremely short runway at 1,312 feet. Flanked by hills on one side, the runway barely has any distance from the Caribbean waters, so any misjudgment from the pilot can bring a plane precariously close to plunging into the sea.
St. Helena Airport
WHERE: St. Helena
St. Helena is a remote British Overseas Territory in the Atlantic. It was accessible through a five- or six-day boat from Cape Town, so an airport was proposed by local authorities. When the construction finished in 2015 after delays, it was discovered that the wind shears made it too turbulent to land flights. The winds from the ocean hit the cliffs–where the airport is–and the 2016 trial flight predicted what all pilots and passengers would have to go through to roam the land where Napoleon died: a hair-raising, roller-coaster flight. St. Helena Airport was dubbed the “world’s most useless airport” after its opening was delayed again.
Commercial operations finally began in 2017 (before COVID-19 stopped them again), and only pilots with special training can land there. Still, it can get pretty rough to fly into this island known for its trails and whale sharks.
Toncontín International Airport
The airport in Tegucigalpa lives in infamy as one of the world’s most dangerous airports. Site of several crashes, the airport is surrounded by mountains and the approach can make pilots nervous as they need to make a 45-degree turn minutes before touchdown in the valley and navigate through neighborhood homes. What’s more, overshooting the 7,000-foot-long tabletop runway can prove fatal.
Any wonder that a new airport in the Comayagua valley is getting ready to replace Toncontín? Inaugurated in October this year, the Palmerola International Airport has a longer runway and better facilities.
The runways of Sao Paulo’s airport are infamous for their short length, tricky approach, and slippery conditions. It’s also terrifying to land so close to the city amid endless rows of rooftops. In 2007, a plane overshot the runway and hit a petrol pump and warehouse. It was a deadly crash that killed 187 people on board and 12 on the ground.
There’s not much room for error here. The Telluride Airport in Colorado is the highest-elevation commerical airport in America, soaring high at 9,070 feet. The mountain winds coupled with the steep cliffs of the San Juan Mountains make it very challenging to fly here.
Aspen/Pitkin County Airport
Another scary airport in the U.S. is Aspen/Pitkin County Airport (elevation 7,800 feet) in the popular ski town of Aspen. Multiple crashes have happened due to ever-changing wind conditions, low visibility, and mountains on either side. It’s definitely one of the trickiest runways to land in the country.