25 Of The World’s Scariest Airport Runways
Some people have a genuine fear of flying. It can be a bit unnerving floating in mid-air, but luckily the law of physics is on our side.
What can be truly terrifying is when the airplane we’re in has to land at an airport with a runway that’s a bit too short, at an awkward angle or in some other way forces us to bite our nails as we come in for our final descent.
If flying isn’t your idea of a good time, you’ll definitely want to pop a valium before taking off or landing at any of these airports.
25. Reagan National Airport – Washington, DC, United States
Located smack in the centre 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.
On taking off, pilots need to climb quickly and execute a steep left bank to avoid flying over the White House.
24. Gibraltar Airport – Gibraltar
Sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the Bay of Algeciras, the runway for this airport is only 6,000 feet long. This strip of land is narrow and short. Planes landing too soon will hit the water and those that land too late risk not having enough room to stop.
In order to secure a landing, a pilot must engage the brakes immediately and completely upon touching down. The other bizarre thing about this runway is that a highway to Spain intersects it.
When planes are scheduled to take off and land, gates come down to block the road and police patrol the traffic to ensure aircraft can cross the road safely.
23. John F. Kennedy International Airport – New York, United States
Pilots scheduled to land at this airport much be especially diligent so that they don’t run into aircraft arriving at La Guardia and Newark, two other busy airports in the area.
There’s nothing particularly dangerous or scary about the runways at JFK, but the air traffic here can be akin to navigating New York City’s roads.
22. Madeira Airport – Funchal, Madeira, Portugal
Pilots must be specially trained to land at this airport, which is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and mountains on the other. Runway 5 at Madeira Airport is the real problem spot.
Pilots must make a clockwise approach and point their aircraft at the mountains before making a last-minute bank to the right in order to properly land on the runway.
21. Barra International Airport – Outer Hebrides, Scotland
This is the only airport in the world where airplanes land on the beach, and the whole thing is literally washed away once a day by the tide. Because the airport is lit by natural lighting, pilots on late afternoon flights are assisted by headlights from cars in a nearby parking lot.
A sign warns interested bystanders to keep off the beach when the windsock is flying because that is when the airport is active.
20. Congonhas Airport – Sao Paulo, Brazil
Most major cities have an airport, but rarely are they built just 5 miles from the city center, especially in metropolises like Sao Paulo. Congonhas’ close proximity to downtown can be attributed in part to the fact that it was completed in 1936, with the city experiencing rapid development in the following decades.
While having an airport only 5 miles from the city center may be a convenience for commuters, it places a strain on both pilots and air traffic control crews.
19. Don Mueang International Airport – Bangkok, Thailand
From a distance Don Mueang International looks like any other midsize airport. However, smack-dab in the middle of the two runways is an 18-hole golf course.
Stewart Schreckengast, a professor of aviation technology at Purdue University and a former aviation consultant with MITRE says one of the major problems is that the only taxiways were located at the end of the runways. “We recommended that they build an additional taxiway in the middle, from side to side, and they said ‘absolutely not, that will take out a green and one fairway.’”
18. Yeager Airport – Charleston, West Virginia
Located on Coonskin Ridge in Charleston, West Virginia, Yeager Airport’s cliff face, at an elevation of 982 feet, can be intimidating, especially when you only have 6,302 feet of runway (the closed secondary runway is a mere 4,750 feet).
17. La Aurora International Airport – Guatemala City, Guatemala
Surrounding mountains, a high altitude, an active volcano, and a steep drop at the end of the runway make flying into La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City a scary ride, even from a pilot’s point of view.
16. LaGuardia Airport – New York City, New York
The main, 7,000-foot runways at New York’s LaGuardia Airport were extended back in 1967—over water. In case gliding over Flushing and Bowery bays isn’t enough of a thrill, pilots have to avoid interfering with flights from two other extremely busy airports nearby: JFK and Newark.
Plus, the airport is located a mere eight miles from Midtown Manhattan, sometimes creating the illusion that the plane is skimming rooftops.
15. Wellington International Airport – Wellington, New Zealand
With a single, short, 6,351-foot runway that appears to begin and end in crystal blue waters, it’s easy to see why flying into Wellington may make you uneasy.
The winds are so strong coming into this airport that approaching planes wobble and often land at an angle.
14. John Wayne Airport – Santa Ana, California
Strict noise reduction requirements may not seem scary at first, but if you’re not expecting engine cutbacks during takeoff you might be spooked.
The main runway, at 5,701 feet, is one of the shortest of any major airport in the United States. The short runway, coupled with local noise restrictions, requires a takeoff at or near full power, followed by a steep climb, a sudden reduction in power, and two turns closely following the Upper Newport Bay.
Pilot holds brakes, hits engines at full throttle, climbs steeply and cuts engines right at freeway, causing the plane to drop like a roller coaster.
13. Matekane Air Strip – Lesotho
Matekane’s small 1,312ft runway is perched-perilously on the edge of a 7,550ft drop – which is where you quite literally take-off into. This is a base-jump equivalent, for the plane drops down the face of a 2,000ft cliff as soon as it leaves the tarmac. Then the plane starts flying.
Apparently, when you take-off in Lesotho’s mountains, it’s better to take-off downwind and downhill than into wind and uphill, as those mountains are just too high to clear.
12. Ice Runway – Antarctica
The Ice Runway is one of three major airstrips used to haul supplies and researchers to Antarctica’s McMurdo Station. As its name implies, there are no paved runways here—just long stretches of ice and snow that are meticulously groomed.
There is no shortage of space on the Ice Runway, so super-size aircraft like the C-130 Hercules and the C-17 Globemaster III can land with relative ease. The real challenge is making sure that the weight of the aircraft and cargo doesn’t bust the ice or get the plane stuck in soft snow.
11. Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport – Saba, Netherlands Antilles
Located on the very north-eastern tip of the island, this airport is prone to stormy trade winds and spin-drifts.
Pilots must make their approach over water, and if they don’t hit the 1,300-foot runway with accurate timing, they need to take off again before falling off the cliffs into the water on the other side.
10. Tioman Island – Malaysia
This beautiful tropic isle lies off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, due east of Kuala Lumpur and roughly north-northeast of Singapore.
The Malaysian Airlines and Berjaya Air bring people to this volcanic island in South China Sea. Pilots must first set their planes on a heading directly into a mountain range, with the pilot then performing a 90 degree turn to line up the runway.
Late touchdowns are ill-advised as overshooting the runway means plunging off a sheer cliff.
9. Sandane – Norway
This Nordic nail-biter of a runway runs is just 2,600 feet, running perpendicular to two imposing fjords— Nordfjord and Gloppefjord—at the base of a rugged peninsula.
It’s doubtful that the single landing strip, which is operated by the Norwegian government, will ever see expansion due to its watery confines.
8. Kansai International Airport – Osaka, Japan
Land is a scarce resource in Japan, so engineers headed roughly 3 miles offshore into Osaka Bay to build this colossal structure. Work on the man-made island started in 1987, and by 1994 jumbo jets were touching down.
Travellers can get from the airport to the main island of Honshu via car, railroad or even a high-speed ferry.
7. Princess Juliana International Airport – St. Maarten
This is one of the busiest airports in the Caribbean and is serviced by many international and regional airlines. The fact that 747s and A340s frequently land here is one of the most terrifying things about it. Built for small and medium planes, the runway at Princess Juliana International Airport is only slightly more than 7,150 feet long.
Those enjoying the afternoon on Maho Beach are likely to come within spitting distance of one of these jumbo jets as they come in for a landing.
6. Paro Airport – Bhutan
Taking off or landing at Paro Airport can feel like a flight simulation video game where players must dodge natural hazards in their way.
When ascending or descending, aircraft has to avoid hitting the jagged Himalayan Mountains through a complicated series of dips and turns. This area is also prone to high-speed winds that whip across the mountains and into the valleys.
5. Gustaf III Airport – Saint Barthélemy
Gustaf III Airport also known as Saint Barthélemy Airport is a public use airport located in the village of St. Jean on the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy. Most visiting aircraft carry fewer than twenty passengers, such as the Twin Otter, a common sight around Saint Barth and throughout the northern West Indies.
The short airstrip is at the base of a gentle slope ending directly on the beach. The arrival descent is extremely steep over the hilltop traffic circle and departing planes fly right over the heads of sunbathers (although small signs advise sunbathers not to lie directly at the end of the runway).
4. Kai Tak Airport – Hong Kong
Kai Tak, the Mother Of All Scary Airports, has closed… words that should be spoken in the same awed yet gleeful tone of voice as “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!” This airport was the former base of the Cathay Pacific and a bunch of regional carriers. It was closed in 1998 but we cannot complete the list if we do not mention Kai Tak.
A manoeuvring airplane is close to scraping off rooftops of skyscrapers and the mountains around the Kowloon Bay. If the airplane misses the runway it might join the ships at Victoria Harbour.
3. Toncontin Airport – Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Because Toncontin Airport is located in a bowl-like valley, planes must pass over mountainous terrain before pilots are forced to make a last-minute 45-degree bank in order to touch down properly.
The runway is 6,112 feet long and can only accommodate planes up to the size of a Boeing 757.
2. Courchevel International Airport – Courchevel, France
Getting to the iconic ski resort of Courchevel requires navigating the formidable French Alps before making a hair-raising landing at Courchevel International Airport. It’s airport has a certain degree of infamy in the aviation industry as home to a relatively short runway, with a length of 525 m (1,722 ft) and a gradient of 18.5%.
It’s so short that you have to land on an inclined strip to slow down and take off on a decline to pick up enough speed.
This was the airport used in the opening seen of Tomorrow Never Dies.
1. Lukla Airport – Lukla, Nepal
Many people fly into this airport to begin the trek to climb Mount Everest. It’s a small airport, but at more than 9,500 feet in elevation, aircraft can’t run on full power.
The runway has a huge mountain on one end and a drop of nearly 3,300 feet on the other end.