Have you watched Duck Tales, the animated TV series? All 90s kid say Aye! Launchpad McQuack was a pilot in the show who was famous for his crash landings. Under any circumstance, he would save everyone even though the plane crashes. I loved his goofiness.
When I grew up, I realized that being a pilot is not an easy job. And there is nothing funny about the crash landings. It takes years of practice to be able to land in the most dangerous airports in the world. Some of them are on high mountain terrains whereas some are located next to an ocean and a little error could result in the nastiest accidents. The pilots are the real heroes of our skies!
Lukla Airport, Nepal: Every year thousands of trekkers try their luck to summit the highest mountain in the world, Mt Everest. But before the adventure of climbing the mountain, they have a thrilling experience of flying into Lukla Airport. This small airport is situated in the town of Lukla in eastern Nepal.
Think of every possible danger which an airport can present. Lukla has it all. Situated at an elevation of 9,325 ft, it is one of the highest airports in the world. Due to the high altitude the air pressure is low which affects the handling of an airplane. The airport is surrounded by steep Himalayan terrain on all sides. There is a mountain shelf on one side, and a steep drop into a valley on the other side. The runway is extremely short (1,729 feet) which makes it very challenging for the pilot to land here. Please note that runways at many of the world’s international airports are more than 10,000 ft long. To make it worse, there is a little electric power, so landing in anything other than perfect conditions becomes even riskier. Only helicopters and small fixed-wing propellers planes are permitted to land here.
The airport was built in 1964 under the supervision of Sir Edmund Hillary, and the official name of the airport is Tenzing-Hillary Airport. The airport was paved in 2001.There have been several accidents on the airport that resulted in many deaths and injuries. In spite of all these dangers Lukla remains a busy airport due to its proximity to Mt Everest. There are regular flights from Kathmandu and we have heard that passengers applaud upon landing at Lukla Airport.
McMurdo Air Station, Antarctica: Every airport is different, but each of them at least have tarmac on which the plane can land. Not in case of Mcmurdo station. The runways here are made of ice. Not your regular ice, these runways are actually made of something called ‘white ice’ which is 3-4 inches of incredibly compacted snow.
Antarctica is not a place where a lot of people will fly to, and therefore the airport there is not exceedingly developed. The airport is in Ross Island and the ice runway is built on the bare volcanic rock of Hut Point Peninsula. This is the only main airport in the continent and is used by the US Antarctic Program.
The weight of the plane needs to be checked carefully so it doesn’t end up cracking the landing strip or so that it doesn’t get stuck in snow. In the winter months, there is no light and the pilots are trained to land wearing night vision goggles.
Madeira Airport, Portugal: The airport is situated between steep cliffs and the ocean shores and the strong winds make it extremely hard to land. Madeira Airport is situated on the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean. In 2016, it was renamed Madeira International Airport Cristiano Ronaldo in honor of the famed soccer player.
The original runway was only 5,249 ft long. After the tourism continued to grow, it was decided that the runway would be extended to 9,124 ft. It’s not as easy as it sounds like. The engineers had to build a large portion on a platform over the ocean which is supported by 180 columns. These columns have to withstand serious shock loading during landings. The airport involves coordinated efforts in spotting landmarks on approach since there is no instrument landing. To land here, pilots must undergo extra training and only a limited number of pilots are qualified to fly into this airport.
Toncontin Airport, Honduras: Another airport in the mountains, landing an aircraft needs special skills here. Pilots are forced to make a dramatic 45-degree turn amidst mountains then descend rapidly while being careful not to scrape the terrain directly underneath. The landings are further complicated with heavy winds which require pilots to make several last-second adjustments. High altitude and narrow size of the runway doesn’t help either.
The airport is located four miles inside the mountainous region of Tegucigalpa at an elevation of 3,297 feet. There have been ten accidents at the airport since 1962 resulting in injuries and death.
Courchevel International Airport, France: With a runway which is shorter than that of Lukla (1722 ft), only certified pilots are allowed in this airport. The airport is located in the French Alps, near the Italian border. It is used mainly by the people who come here to ski.
The runway is short and steep, and is designed at a downward gradient of 18.5 percent so that the aircraft are slowed down on landing. This slope makes taking off ever more difficult than landing here. If aircraft do not gain enough speed by the end of the runway, they simply fly off the edge of a cliff, hoping for the best. The high altitude and adverse weather conditions worsen the flying conditions.
Princess Juliana International Airport, St Martin: This airport located in the Caribbean Island of Saint martin was initially built for smaller aircrafts. With time and tourism boom, the plans had to be changed and bigger planes such as A340s and the 747s also need to land here. The runway at 7,150 ft is not long enough for these planes as most large aircraft require a minimum of 8000 ft to for a safe landing, thus making it a dangerous airport.
The runway is next to the Maho beach which results in huge gusts of wind and sand for sunbathers. It has made the airport one of the most favourite Instagrammable places in the world. The proximity to a public beach comes with risks. In 2017 a New Zealand woman died from injuries sustained by jet blast from a departing aircraft. Despite being scary, it remains one of the prettiest airports to land at.
Paro Airport, Bhutan: The happy country of Bhutan has only one international airport. Located right on the banks of the river Paro Chhu, it is ranked one of the most dangerous airports in the world. The runway is 6500 ft and is surrounded by severe 18,000-foot mountain peaks. Strong winds whip through the valley, often resulting in severe turbulence. Due to the unforgiving terrain, high altitude and ever changing weather, flights are only allowed during daytime and under visual meteorological conditions.
Only 8 pilots were allowed to land flight here till few years back. Now the number has increased but it is still small and requires the pilots to go under special training in order to qualify.