If you aren’t crazy about flying, this post isn’t for you. But if you’re one of those people who think turbulence at 3,000 metres is like a fun rollercoaster ride, keep reading. It’s true that the internet is chock full of Top 10 lists of strange places light aircraft and jumbo jets fly to or ghost airports, like the former Kai Tak in Hong Kong, dubbed the “heart attack airport” by passengers. There are even reports of planes taking off from a little strip of land flattened by a bulldozer deep in the jungles of Venezuela.
But let’s be honest. It’s one thing that there are places like that, but another thing entirely that any of us travellers might pass through one of them this summer. It’s easier to land at Gibraltar Airport (see cover photo), whose landing strip crosses a motorway at the same level. That’s a piece of cake compared to these extreme airports you may very well fly to on your holiday—a list we’ve put together with a little help from a pilot friend.
Amerigo Vespucci Airport, Florence (Italy)
Lovers of Tuscany, be aware that this city has a miniscule landing strip used each day by a number European airlines with light aircraft more or less designed for such things. But if you’re flying out of Spain, it’s most likely that you’ll be on an Airbus 319, a 60-ton, 34-metre-wide tricycle that has to slow down from 240 km/h to zero on a runway only… 1,400 metres in length and only 30 metres wide, while the norm is at least 45 m. You might say it’s a bit of a tight squeeze. Keep in mind that large jets like the Boeing 747 or Airbus 340 need runways at least 2.5 km long to take off and land safely.
The lay of the land isn’t any help, either. You can only approach from one direction, and with a mountain right in front, when there’s wind or rain, landing gets even more complicated.
Risks: ending up in Pisa instead of Florence and having to take a bus to your destination.
If you make it to your destination: climbing to the observation deck of Brunelleschi’s Dome in the Cathedral of Florence, enjoying a stracotto with a good chianti and chancing upon a buchette, one of those little wine portals found on the first floor of aristocratic palaces.
Madeira International Airport, Funchal (Madeira)
It’s a precious island filled with lush vegetation, granted, but let’s face it: it’s tiny. And yet, someone came up with the brilliant idea of putting an airport there. Since space is so limited, the airport extends out over the sea: almost 1 km of the runway stands on 180 cement pylons. Flying there requires special training. The biggest risk is the turbulence and strong winds one might encounter while making the final turn just before landing. Definitely not suitable for those prone to motion sickness.
Risks: they forgot to cut off a little piece of mountain, so the approach is on a curve. It’s a delicate manoeuver considering the strong local winds.
If you make it to your destination: there’s the marvellous Belmond Reid’s Palace, or you can meander through the Botanical Gardens, go hiking and enjoy swordfish or caldeirada.
Toncontin International Airport, Tegucigalpa (Honduras)
“Crossing the pond” to land was never a more apt description than in Honduras. When it comes to landing, the airport in Tegucigalpa is an old favourite on lists of most extreme airports. Located in a residential district to the south of the city and surrounded by a mountain range, it has a runway less than 2,000 metres in length. It’s a hostile runway where touchdowns aren’t exactly… run of the mill.
Risks: being surrounded by mountains, pilots are obligated to employ all their skills to land on the short 1,863-metre runway. The planes practically scrape the nearby homes.
If you make it to your destination: you can enjoy baleada, the fajitas they make there (however, those made with old chicken aren’t to everyone’s taste) and exploring Picacho National Park.
Princess Juliana International Airport, Sint. Maarten (Netherlands)
In the heart of the Caribbean, in the midst of the crystalline waters of the Atlantic and just to the right of Puerto Rico, there’s a group of islands—a territory still shared between the French and the Dutch. And there, in what are known as the Netherlands Antilles, is Sint Maarten. It isn’t that the airport’s exactly complicated, but when it comes to aviation, things can get complicated due to any number of factors. In this case, they’ve built a landing strip that runs from the beach as far as possible, designed only for small planes. But since industry makes the rules, wherever there’s a runway, planes of up to 400 passengers are sure to land.
Since the runway has no taxiway, it has two exits to allow planes to negotiate the 180° turn. Most of the time, planes like the Boeing 747 or the Airbus A340, which are the largest that frequent this airport, have to use the entire runway for take-off and landing.
Risks: large planes fly over the beach at an altitude of only 25 metres. It’s a great photo op, incidentally, but not danger-free, due to the risk of being sucked up by the turbine engines.
If you make it to your destination: you can partake of a little cultural tourism, visiting the Arawak relics and shipwrecks, or devote yourself to the art of doing absolutely nothing.
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (Saba)
This airport—a neighbour of the previous one—enjoys the distinction of having the shortest commercial runway in the world: only 400 metres long. It’s closed to jet traffic, as they aren’t all that efficient at taking off from short runways, and there are only two airlines that use it: Windward Islands Airways, which runs daily connecting flights between this airport and the one in St. Martin, and a private charter company.
Risks: its location. It’s surrounded by large hills on one side and sea cliffs at both ends.
If you make it to your destination: you must go underwater fishing, without a doubt!
Paro International Airport (Bhutan)
Surrounded by towering mountains 5,500 metres high in the heart of the Himalayas, we find this little gem only a scant dozen pilots can fly to. According to the Daily Mail, up until July of 2011, only one airline, Druk Air—the national airline of the Kingdom of Bhutan—was permitted to use this aerodrome. At more than two thousand metres above sea level, it’s like an extreme version of Toncontin. It can only be used during the daytime and only when weather conditions are favourable. Take-off is also an odyssey.
Risks: the very peaks of the Himalayas.
If you make it to your destination: you can visit the Tiger’s Nest monastery, situated on a cliff 3,120 metres high, and try tsampa, one of the typical local dishes, which is made from barley flour cooked with salt and… yak butter!
Courchevel Airport (French Alps)
Suffice it to say that this is a ski resort with an airport, known as “the rollercoaster of aviation” because the main runway is undulated with ups and downs that make take-off and landing manoeuvres only specialists dare attempt. It also lacks a taxiway.
Risks: a very short landing strip (525 metres). It’s an airport with a very difficult approach, as there’s no ILS, a system that uses radio signals to guide aircraft toward the runway with precision, regardless of weather conditions or visibility.
If you reach your destination: besides enjoying the spectacular views while skiing, you can eat at one of no fewer than 7 Michelin star restaurants!
As a sort of bonus track, here’s a video: Have a good flight!
Opening photo by Michael F. Mehnert, through Wikimedia Commons.