Gustaf III Airport, St Barths
The beautiful island of St Barths is a destination popular among the rich and famous – celebrities such as Simon Cowell and Jon Bon Jovi have been known to holiday there, among many more. The small Caribbean island has stunning beaches, luxury hotels, designer stores… and one of the most dangerous airports on the planet.
Its incredibly short runway measures only 2,100 feet with a daunting 150-foot hill on one end and a popular beach on the other. Because of the small runway, the airport only serves small aircrafts – most only able to carry less than twenty passengers. Tourists are warned not to lounge on the section of beach that lies meters away from the runway, but these warnings go ignored and departing planes regularly fly right over the heads of sunbathers.
On either side are mountains, which make an airport landing extra difficult as they force pilots to make a quick descent. In 2013, a light aircraft crashed into one of the surrounding mountains while attempting the tricky landing.
Sea Ice Runway, Antarctica
Anybody used to tarmac runways may get a shock here, as the runway is made entirely of ice. Finding an area of flat land in Antarctica is near impossible, so the frozen sea ice is used instead. It has to be abandoned in warmer months when the ice begins to weaken. Antarctica has 6 months of 24-hour darkness during the winter and because there are no lights here, pilots are trained to land totally blind.
Only highly trained military pilots land here, so thankfully the Sea Ice Runway hasn’t seen many accidents despite its dangers. However, an exception to this was when, in 1960, a United States Navy crashed while attempting to land on the ice. The men on board were injured, but luckily nobody was killed. The aircraft skidded into the water and was allowed to sink. It remains there to this day.
LaGuardia Airport, USA
New York is famous for its Skyscrapers, which pilots flying in or out of LaGuardia must dodge to avoid disaster. They have to maneuver their aircrafts around the Manhattan Skyline in tight turns at low altitude, the most nerve-wracking being a delicate 180-degree turn around Citi Field. Meanwhile, they need to be careful to avoid the other aircrafts in the sky, which is packed with planes in the USA’s busiest airport system.
Tom Hanks fans may have seen the movie Sully, which is based on LaGuardia's most famous incident. In 2009, a US Airways flight departed LaGuardia Airport headed for North Carolina. Only a few minutes in, the plane hit a flock of birds and lost both of its engines. A plane losing its engines is dangerous enough without factoring in that just below was a landscape full of skyscrapers and millions of people going about their lives. Miraculously, everybody onboard survived thanks to the pilot's remarkable emergency landing.
Congonhas Airport, Brazil
For a long time, locals feared that the risks here were bound to lead to a huge accident, and in the Summer of 2007, their fears were realised. It was an especially wet day when an Airbus carrying 187 people overran the slippery runway, crossed a major road, and crashed into an adjacent warehouse.
Everyone aboard the aircraft and 12 people on the ground died in the crash. To this day, it remains Brazil's worst aviation accident. Only the day before, this tragedy was foreshadowed when two aircrafts skidded off the runway in smaller incidents. After the crash, efforts were made to make the airport safer, including adding drainage grooves and restricting the size of aircrafts allowed to use the runway.
San Diego International Airport, USA
As well as congestion in the sky, pilots have had to contend with San Diego’s expansion on the ground. As the city grows, there are more tall buildings erected that cause a potential hazard to air crafts.
San Diego was always an accident waiting to happen, and in September 1978 - it did. A commuter flight carrying 128 passengers and 7 crew collided with a small learner aircraft. They crashed to the ground, resulting in a devastating scene. Tragically, everyone on board both, planes and 7 people on the ground were killed in the worst aviation accident in California’s history. The incident brought scrutiny to the congested air space above San Diego and created a major change in aviation law. Because of the accident, it’s now illegal for small aircrafts to fly into the paths of large commercial jets.
Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport, Portugal
The original runway was a mere 5000ft long. Until, in 1977, a plane carrying 164 people couldn’t stop in time, killing 130 passengers and crew in the devastating accident. Then, only 2 months later in December 1977, another plane descended too low and crashed into the sea, killing 36 people.
As a result of these tragedies, the runway was extended to measure 9000ft. However, the danger didn’t end there... Because of the airport’s location, the new section of runway had to be built out into the ocean. It lies on concrete supports, with a terrifying 90ft drop either side awaiting any aircraft that overestimates the landing. If an aircraft were to fall from the runway, it would be certain to add another tragedy to the list.
Eagle County Airport, USA
The weather here can be extreme. Conditions can change quickly while the aircraft is already partway into their approach. It’s not uncommon snowstorm to surround an aircraft when already halfway through its descent. An underestimated danger here is the altitude. Aircrafts lose 3% horsepower for every 1000ft high they go, and up in the Colorado mountains that becomes a significant issue.
Overall, planes are far less powerful at high altitudes where the air is thinner. Pilots must increase their speed as they take off to make sure they make it high enough and need a lot more runway and groundspeed than usual. Sadly, many pilots over the years have lost their lives flying in or out of Eagle Valley. Amongst them is a 65-year-old man, who’s small aircraft crashed in 2015 when he lost control of it in harsh windy conditions.
Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong
One of the multiple dangers at Kai Tak was the lack of a ‘bailout’ area. At most airports, pilots have their last chance to abandon their descent at around 500ft to go back around and make a second attempt. But at Kai Tak, pilots couldn’t even level their wings until about 300ft, meaning landings there were risky and near impossible to save once they went wrong.
During its 63 years in operation, Kai Tak saw a staggering 14 major aviation incidents. The deadliest incident was in 1965, when an American military aircraft struck a sea wall shortly after liftoff. It crashed into the water, resulting in 71 fatalities. Then in 1993, the airport’s most infamous accident occurred when a commercial flight overran the runway while attempting to land in gale-force winds. Even though the approach was unstable, the pilot couldn’t make a second attempt. The plane skidded across the runway and ended up submerged in the waters of Hong Kong’s harbor.
Gibraltar International Airport, UK
Britain and Spain have a dispute over the territory. Although Britain governs Gibraltar, Spain technically ‘owns’ some airspace around it. So, on top of the terrifying winds, pilots have to make complicated maneuvers to avoid the ‘no-fly’ zone that Spain has in place.
If all of that wasn’t enough - a four-lane highway goes right through the middle of the runway. Barriers go down when an aircraft is coming in to stop traffic, but this doesn’t stop pedestrian tourists from stopping right in the middle to take a photograph. Visitors to the island often unknowingly put themselves at risk when they don’t realise they’re standing on an active runway.
Gisborne Airport, New Zealand
What's so spectacular about it? Well, Gisbourne Airport has an active railway that intersects with the runway. To avoid aircrafts colliding with the passing trains, the railway and airport schedules must be coordinated extremely carefully. Trains and aircrafts often come within meters of each other - a jaw-dropping sight for passengers.
Managing the two is tricky for officials, and sometimes trains are forced to pause to make way for an aircraft as it lands. Amazingly, there haven’t been any nasty accidents at Gisbourne so far. It is only a matter of time before air traffic control gets it wrong?
Toncontin International Airport, Honduras
Pilots aren’t fearful of this airport without reason. In 2008, a landing attempt went horribly wrong when a pilot couldn’t land on his first attempt. After informing passengers that he was going to have to make a second attempt, events took a terrible turn when a strong wind from the South pushed the plane to a higher ground speed as it touched down.
It couldn’t stop in time and crashed down the cliff and onto a busy street below. 3 people on the plane and 2 on the ground were killed in the crash. Before the disaster in 2008, in 1998 another plane suffered the same fate, resulting in the loss of 3 lives.
Narsarsuaq Airport, Greenland
The terrifying thing about Narsarsuaq Airport is its frozen runways. Greenland is an icy country and the area of Narsarsuaq experiences a subarctic climate with long, freezing cold winters. Landing on this icy strip takes special skill and a great deal of courage. Along with the ice and frost are unpredictable harsh winds and fog, which can ruin a pilot’s visibility as they skid along the ice to a stop.
Along with the harsh weather conditions, active volcanoes are worryingly close to the runway. They routinely spit out ash and cause even more problems at Narsarsuaq. The last accident here was in 2001 when a freight aircraft crashed on approach, sadly killing 3 people.
Barra International Airport, Scotland
Because of this, close attention must be paid to the weather conditions, and flights can only land at certain times of the day. Air traffic controllers at Barra International are truly at the mercy of the ocean.
The airport serves the island of Barra in the remote Outer Hebrides of Scotland, which has a population of less than 2000. The airport’s beach runway is also used by tourists and locals, who love to pick cockles and take walks along the shore. To ensure an incoming aircraft won’t hit them, they consult the ‘windsock’ - a fabric tube fixed to a pole that can show the direction and strength of the day's winds.
Wellington International Airport, New Zealand
Flying into Wellington is well known for being a nerve-wracking experience. At only 1936m, Wellingtons runway is so short that it limits the size of the planes that can use it, and the end of the runway leads straight into the sea. From the window, passengers see the rocky, mountainous landscape below them and wonder how on earth they will make it to the ground.
Considering the short runway, rocky landscape, and hair-raising weather conditions, there have been surprisingly few accidents here. However, In 1963, an aircraft overran the runway and ended up down an embankment on a nearby public road, and in a 1959 air show. Two small planes were damaged in incidents because of the high winds that day.
Paro Airport, Bhutan
Locals living in the houses dotted on the mountainside are used to planes coming unsettlingly close to their rooftops as they weave through the mountain tops on their descent. The mountain peaks surrounding the airport reach up to 18,000 feet, so pilots can only see fleeting glimpses of the landing strip as they approach. To top it off, there is no radar system to guide planes into the airport. Pilots have to rely on their skills alone and land completely manually.
Passengers landing here need to have a strong stomach. The runway lies in a valley that, on windy days, acts as a wind tunnel that causes stomach-churning turbulence. But if you’re brave enough, the bird's-eye view of the Himalayas might just be worth it.
Courchevel Airport, France
Like many other airports in snowy mountainous locations, it’s particularly dangerous and challenging to navigate. With very limited flat land space high in the Alps, this small airport was built with an alarmingly short runway. It has a down gradient of 18.5%, causing it to be difficult to reach - and that’s on a good day. On a bad day, poor weather can make a landing here almost impossible. Even a small amount of fog renders the airport completely invisible to pilots. And to make it even harder, the airport has no lights or landing aids.
At a normal commercial airport, pilots can fly back round if a landing goes wrong and is too dangerous. But at Courchevel, the precarious position of the airport means there are no second chance landings here.
Kansai International Airport, Japan
The airport was built by Italian architect Renzo Piano and is an incredible fete of engineering, but doesn’t come without its risks. Situated 17 feet above sea level, the danger here comes from unpredictable weather conditions. The area is prone to cyclones and earthquakes. And on a tiny island in the middle of the sea, that’s not good news. In the event of a Tsunami, the airport would be destroyed and many lives would be lost.
If you like the idea of seeing Kansai International for yourself, you may be running out of time. Scientists predict that the airport could become completely submerged in the next fifty years due to rising sea levels.
John Wayne Airport, USA
The flight path out of the airport goes directly over the affluent California neighbourhood of Newport Beach. Strict noise regulations were put in place in 1985 when residents complained about the noise. As part of these regulations, pilots have to perform a ’noise abatement’ takeoff. This involves pulling back the engines abruptly after takeoff, which would leave you feeling as if your days were about to be over if you didn’t know what was happening.
First, passengers feel their stomach drop as if they’re on a rollercoaster. Then, the aircraft becomes eerily quiet as the engine’s power is turned right down. The aircraft’s angle drops from ascending to almost level while still flying close to the ground. Even with a warning, passengers report feeling shaken and alarmed. But they can soon relax once the plane goes beyond the noise protected area when usual takeoff is resumed and the plane climbs to cruising altitude.
Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Marteen
Separating the runway and the beach is nothing but a small highway and thin wire fence. A popular activity for thrill-seeking visitors is to hang on tightly to the fence and wait for the planes to take off or land. The powerful force of the plane’s jets produces winds of up to 100mph, almost blowing the tourists away as they have fun trying to cling on.
However exciting, this activity is not without its risks and this makes this airport notorious for its danger. In 2017, a 57-year-old woman sadly died from her injuries when she was blown into a retaining wall. And in 2012, a teenager was sent flying into a low concrete block and received a nasty gash to the head. Despite officials placing signs near the runway to warn the public of its risks, the beach remains a well-known tourist attraction around the world, and visitors are yet to be deterred from standing dangerously close to the aircraft’s jets.