When an airport was built on the mid-Atlantic island of St. Helena (above), it was initially dubbed the “world’s most useless” airport. That’s because wind shear on the cliffside runway initially made it dangerous to land.
Today the airport is up and running, but it’s a category C, meaning that pilots have to be specially trained to land there. It’s not the only one – here are some of the most breathtaking (but also fear-inducing) airports around the world.
Those who go on vacation to Madeira know that the island is notorious for difficult landings – and sometimes even no landings at all. The airport’s proximity to high terrain means turbulence and wind shear – sometimes severe – on final approach. The runway finishes at the cliff edge on either side – but thankfully it’s a low one, with a road below it. Avgeeks are so fond of Madeira that the airport has built a platform beside the runway to watch pilots give it their best shot.
The 23rd highest airport in the world doesn’t sound too high… until you realize Leh airport sits at 10,682 feet above sea level. Surrounded by mountains, with a short runway, it’s beset by strong winds in the afternoon, meaning flights are restricted to mornings only. Widebody and heavy planes are not allowed, and all pilots landing here receive special training.
You don’t have to be an avgeek to have watched videos of planes landing at Sint Maarten – social media is full of footage of jets landing at the Caribbean airport. That’s because the runway backs straight onto a beach, meaning that planes come in to land right overhead. Although it seems fun, it’s dangerous stuff – in 2017, a woman was killed by a jet engine blast as she was hanging onto the airport fence with other swimsuit-clad tourists. For those on board, taking off is slightly more scary than landing – since you head straight for the mountain rearing up behind the airport.
Cantilevered 7,364 feet above sea level, Paro is Bhutan’s only international airport – yet few pilots are cleared to land there, so tricky is the approach. Landings are only allowed in good visibility conditions (for starters, daylight) because there’s no radar, so planes must make a manual approach. They must also weave between hills and over houses before curving onto the runway.
London City, UK
Flying right over a capital city to land is an unusual feeling these days, but descending into London City you’ll swoop around the City of London’s skyscrapers, bank around Canary Wharf, and land at such a steep angle there’s the feeling of being in a helicopter. Taking off is equally invigorating.
Reagan National Airport, USA
In June 2021, when a Frontier Airlines plane skidded off the runway at DC’s Ronald Reagan airport, one passenger described it as a “little bit scary.” But you don’t have to be involved in an incident to get the creeps here – the sharp turn planes make near the Potomac River to line up with the runway, and the dodging of no-fly zones across the city, make this a tricky one for pilots.
Hugged by mountains, the capital of Tyrol is a top skiing destination – and a magnificent flight in. Or rather, the views are. The challenge for pilots is magnificent in a different way. Planes must dip over a nearly 8,000-foot peak, deal with wind shear gusting off the mountains, and, depending on the direction of the wind, may even need to bank sharply to maneuver into position to land in the valley.
São Paulo’s domestic airport used to have a problem with drainage – one so serious that it caused a fatal accident in 2007. Following that, the runway was resurfaced to correct the problem, but landing here can still feel quite hairy. Just a few miles from downtown – which in São Paulo means it’s still in the middle of the city – the single runway, which debuted in the 1930s, is surrounded by urban sprawl, meaning you’ll be flying over apartment blocks and rooftops right till the last moment.
Mountains, wind shear and a short runway – Lukla has it all. Often called the world’s most dangerous airport, the gateway to Everest, in the mountains of Nepal, has its runway laid out on a cliffside between mountains – just 1,729 feet of it – dropping straight into an abyss at the end. To help planes slow down, it’s even slanted upwards. There’s no scope for goarounds, either – if a plane is on final descent, it needs to land. Still, the mountain views are incredible on the way down.
You’ll likely be in for a bumpy ride landing at St. Helena. Wind shear paired with a cliffside airport mean the planes are given a good buffeting as they come in to land. Fix your eyes on the views of the Longwood plain, where Napoleon was exiled, and of tiny capital Jamestown, built into a canyon crack with a single harbor. Originally only planned for small aircraft, the runway was extended to accommodate a 757.