You don’t want your pilot to be a first-timer when you fly in and out of these places. These runways present a challenge for even the most experienced aviators.
1. Princess Juliana International Airport, St Maarten
At 7152 feet the runway is fine for smaller aircraft but the larger jets need to come in extremely low over nearby Maho Beach almost skimming the perimeter fence.
2. Toncontín Airport, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Getting to this airport high up in the mountains is a challenge in itself with pilots having to negotiate their way through tricky terrain on their approach. Then at the last moment they have to make a sharp left bank just prior to coming in very low over the adjacent hill side and touching down.
3. Madeira Airport, Funchal
Wedged between mountains and the Atlantic, Madeira Airport requires a clockwise approach for which pilots have to be specially trained. Despite an elevated extension completed in 2000 that expanded the runway length to what should be a comfortable 9000 feet, the approach to Runway remains a hair-raising affair that pilots absolutely dread. They must first point their aircraft at the mountains and, at the last minute, bank right to align with the fast-approaching runway. In poor weather strong cross-winds can make landing at Madeira almost impossible.
4. Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba
Perched on the end of the only flat piece of land available, there is no margin for error here with only 1300 feet and a drop off into the ocean at either end of the runway.
5. Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla, Nepal
A 2010 program called Most Extreme Airports rated this one as the most dangerous airport in the world. It’s easy to see why with pilots having to negotiate their way through the Himalayas to get to the airport which has high mountains at one end and a sharp drop into the valley at the other.
6. Courchevel Airport, France
After working their way through the French Alps pilots have very little room for error once they hit the runway which undulates and is only about half a kilometre long.
7. Gibraltar Airport, Gibraltar
Pinched in by the Mediterranean on one end and the Bay of Gibraltar on the other, the airport’s runway stretches just 6,000 feet. Pilots must hit the ground with precision and as soon as they do it’s hard on the brakes. Added to that the main road between Span and Gibraltar crosses the runway and traffic has to be stopped every time a plane takes off and lands.
8. Sandane, Norway
This Nordic nail-biter is just 2,600 feet long with a fjord at either end – Nordfjord and Gloppefjord.
9. Reagan National Airport, Washington D.C
This one makes the list not because of it’s physical characteristics but because of the perils that come with negotiating the restricted airspace around Washington D.C – and the consequences of wandering into restricted airspace. Reagan National is located in the centre of two overlapping air-exclusion zones. Pilots flying the “River Visual” into the airport have to follow the Potomac River while staying clear of sensitive sites such as the Pentagon and CIA headquarters before making a steep turn and landing on the peninsula. Taking off is also a nervous affair in which pilots are required to climb quickly and execute a steep left bank to avoid flying over the White House.
10. Maketane Airstrip, Lesotho
While only used by charities delivering aid and the occasional bush pilot this one rates a mention due to the fact that it is not long enough to take off before you run out of runway. You have to drop off the side of the mountain and negotiate the canyon until you gain enough air speed to start climbing and get clear of the mountains. Reportedly it’s quite hard to do the first time.
Honourable Mention: Kai Tak, Hong Kong
Although it didn’t make our list because it closed in 1998, the infamous Kai Tak deserves an honourable mention due to being the most daunting urban airport of all time. Planes would practically graze skyscrapers and jagged mountains as they took off and landed on a single runway that shot headlong into Victoria Harbour.