The World’s Most Extreme Runways
From the Himalayas to the Maldives, some landings can inspire awe – while others bring about terror.
Long lines, terse agents, overpriced food and delays – in the world of travel, airports are notorious for being necessary obstacles standing between travellers and their final destinations. But according to users of the question-and-answer site Quora.com, at the world’s most unique airports, the take-offs and landings make it all worth the ride.
A death-defying descent
Nepal’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport is built for adventurers. Tucked high in the Himalayan town of Lukla, the airport’s 460m runway has a steep 12% incline, making it only accessible to helicopters and small, fixed-wing planes. To the north of the runway, there are mountains, and to the south is a steep, nearly 600m drop, leaving absolutely no room for error.
The terrifying airstrip serves as an entry point for mountain climbers who are keen to tackle the world’s tallest mountain. “This is where most Everest summiters land,” wrote Quora user Amy Robinson. “It is one of the most dangerous airports in the world.”
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that this airport was named after the region’s most famous adventurers: Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the first people to reach Everest’s summit.
A runway under water
At high tide, the runway of Scotland’s Barra Airport is nowhere to be seen.
“The airport is unique, being the only one in the world where scheduled flights use a beach as the runway,” wrote Quora user Amit Kushwaha. As such, flight times are dictated by the tide.
Located in the shallow bay of Traigh Mhor beach on Barra Island in the Outer Hebrides, the airport’s runways are laid out in a triangular formation and are marked by wooden poles to help guide the Twin Otter propeller planes onto the sand.
A stretch for tropical
For pilots, landing at the Maldives’ Male International Airportis daunting. The lone asphalt runway – which lies just two metres above sea level – takes up the entire length of Hulhule Island in the North Male Atoll, so a minor miscalculation could send the plane careening off into the Indian Ocean.
“[It’s] one of the few airports in the world that begins and ends with water and takes up an entire island,” wrote Quora user Peter Baskerville.
Because Hulhule Island (one of 1,192 coral islands spread over roughly 90,000sqkm) is used mainly for the airport, visitors typically take speedboats to their final destinations once they land.
Hit the brakes
Landing at Juancho E Yrausquin Airport, on the Caribbean island of Saba, “is not for the faint of heart,” wrote Quora user Dhairya Manek.
That’s because it is widely regarded as having the shortest commercially serviceable runway in the world – approximately 396m. (Typically, runways are between 1,800m and 2,400m.) That means only small aircraft, which can quickly decrease speed, can land here.
Its setting is as beautiful as it is dangerous. “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,” Manek wrote. “Jet airplanes are not allowed to land at the airport due to its incredibly short runway.”
‘Nerve-racking… yet stunningly beautiful’
At 2,767m above sea level, Colorado’s Telluride Regional Airport is North America’s highest commercial airport. “[It’s] nerve-racking to experience, yet stunningly beautiful,” wrote Quora user Erin Whitlock.
Telluride’s single runway – which sits on a plateau in the Rocky Mountains, next to a heart-stopping, 300m drop to the San Miguel River below – used to be notorious for a giant dip in its centre. But renovations in 2009 made the airstrip safer and made it possible for larger aircraft to land. Today, the airport’s Mountain Flying Safety guide advises pilots of single- or light-twin-engine aircraft not to attempt night landings, not to attempt flight if high-altitude winds exceed 30 knots, and not to fly if visibility is less than 15 miles.
A heart-stopping approach
So petrifying was the landing at the now-closed Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong, passengers had a nickname for it: the Kai Tak Heart Attack.
“The Kai Tak Airport no longer exists, but it was one of the wonders of the flying world when it was in operation [between 1925 and 1998],” wrote Quora user Jay Wacker. “It was on a little bit of reclaimed land in a harbour and there were high-rises on both sides. It was a relatively short runway for big planes, and it always felt harrowing when landing on a 747. When you looked out the window during take-off or landing, you felt like you could look into the living rooms of people.”