Type ‘Most Dangerous Airports’ into Google, and you’ll get hits aplenty, with many promising shock footage of aircraft in distress. Several of these link to awful photo montages set to polka music, but some are the real deal, and pant-wettingly scary. Of the numerous airfields that cater to the tired of living, many don’t count in the context of this article because the only people who use them are mercenaries or smugglers. You can’t just log into Expedia and buy a ticket to a grass strip in Sudan. However, as of October 2018, the following five airports are all commercially served.
Recently renamed Christiano Ronaldo airport, after Portugal’s favourite narcissist and footballing legend, Funchal itself is legendary among pilots. Unpredictable winds and a short runway, with the Atlantic Ocean at either end, make landing here hairy, to say the least. Airplanes are flung around like corks in a whirlpool as the pilots fight wind shear, severe turbulence and, regularly, severe butt-clenching. Often, the safest option is to go around and try again or, if the pilot has half a brain, bugger off somewhere less windy. Some, though, laugh in the face of Mother Nature and stick with the landing which, as this video footage suggests isn’t always the best course of action. It’s only a matter of time before someone scratches the paint.
Before the authorities literally moved a mountain (or part of one, at least), the approach to Tegucigalpa’s airport was considered by the pilots who braved it to be the most dangerous in the world. Aircraft would have to visually wind their way through mountainous terrain, flying a curved path to line up on the short runway at the last second. Following several significant incidents (read: fatalities), the authorities bulldozed a chunk of the hillside just before the threshold, which increased safety margins. In 2009, they also extended the runway length to more than 2000m. In spite of this ambitious landscaping project and availability of GPS to navigate amongst the hills, the airport is still troubling the insurance companies.
As a rule of thumb, the more stunning the scenery surrounding an airport, the more difficult the operating environment. Nestled in the Himalayas, and used as a staging post for climbing Mt. Everest, Tenzing-Hillary airport is renowned for being unforgiving*. It is situated on a plateau nearly 10,000ft above sea level, with terrain dropping away steeply from the start of the 530m-short runway and rising just as steeply at the far end. On a clear day, this makes for an incredible approach, as this video shows. Unfortunately, the airport is blighted with thin air, unpredictable winds and changeable visibility. Should the pilot drop too much below the recommended approach path, there’s neither time nor power to correct before hitting something solid.
* Pilot-speak for f*ckin’ dangerous.
Situated some 7,300ft above sea level, and also surrounded by the Himalayas, Paro airport is yet another testament to human tenacity. Or is it stupidity? Combining the worst of Lukla — high altitude and mountains up to 18,000ft — with the worst of Toncontin — having to fly in between said mountains — just two scheduled airlines and a handful of charters serve the airport. Flight operations are only allowed during daylight hours in visual flying conditions, by pilots who have been specially trained to shoot the approach. This video, showing an ATR turboprop on finals, clearly demonstrates why this is the case. Incredibly, since the runway was lengthened and strengthened back in 1990, the airport has welcomed jet aircraft as big as the Airbus A319.
St. Helena, South Atlantic
St. Helena, a remote island off the southern African coast, was, until recently, supported by the regular runs of just one supply ship. When the UK government finally announced the project to build an airport, the inhabitants believed their prayers had been answered. A little prematurely, as it happened. Aside from construction delays and costs far in excess of the £285m budget, there was one tiny problem that manifested only after the airport was completed — a runway so beset by severe wind shear that nothing could actually land on it. The only solution to this massive cock-up meant that the aircraft types originally planned to serve St. Helena can’t, and the smaller Embraer E190s that do must leave 20% of seats empty. That solution? To declare around 300m of tarmac at each end of the runway unusable for landing, thereby reducing exposure to the worst of the winds. The approach is still considered to be on the scary side of interesting, but at least you won’t crash. Well, probably. One of the first aircraft to land at the new airport was a 737-800. After a planned flypast with the gear up, this test flight ended up having to go around for real before landing on the third attempt. Unsurprisingly, following this trial, the authorities ruled the environment unsuitable* for larger jets.
*Regulator-speak for f*ckin’ dangerous.