Flights of Faith

May 01, 2017 | Categories:

Most individuals would not even consider the possibility that a plane may buzz by you while enjoying a swim in the Caribbean Sea.  How about landing toward a mountain or taking off where the runway suddenly disappears into the ocean?  Boy do we have faith in our pilots.  We trust them with our lives and the wellbeing of our family and friends.  They are extraordinarily well-trained, highly skilled, and take on a very special position in our society.  They are caregivers of a less traditional nature.  Buckle up and make sure your seatbacks are in the upright position.  We are venturing into some of the world’s most dangerous airports.  You may have a new appreciation for the pilot of your next flight.

When talking about the most difficult landings in the world, one must include Bhutan’s Paro Airport.  Some tout it as the most dangerous.  First, only a select highly skilled pilots are certified to land at the airport.  Some reports place that number as low as six and others as high as ten.  When built, the airport’s runway was only 4,600 feet long, but has since been lengthened to 6,445 ft.  Pilots may only take off or land from the airport under visual meteorological conditions.  For this reason, only daytime landings are permitted.  The airport sits above 7,300 feet in altitude and is completely surrounded by mountain peaks as high as 18,000 feet.  When landing, it appears you are landing into a mountain!  

How about a flight to the Caribbean?  St. Maarten is a beautiful place to visit.  Bright blue waters, beautiful white houses dotting the hilly landscape all make it a highly desirable vacation spot.  However, if you are swimming at Maho Beach, it is a little windy and noisy.  Maho Beach is at the end of Princess Juliana Airport.  Landing aircraft come in extremely low and, in fact, sometimes barely clear the fence separating the airport property from the beach.  Since the approach to the runway is entirely over water, pilots can become visually disoriented and must rely upon instrumentation and experience to make a safe landing.

Perhaps a ski trip is more to your taste.  Courchevel, France is absolutely beautiful.  It is very popular with local and international travelers.  However, the airport there is just a little tricky.  It has an extraordinarily short runway of just 1,762 feet; the runway is also on a nearly 19% grade where a plane lands and goes uphill.  Instrumentation has little use when landing at this airport so weather conditions must be near perfect for aircraft to land or take off.  There are no lights, so plan to arrive during the daytime only!  Keep in mind that the airport and runway are very near ski slopes as well, so there is no room for error!

Barra Airport in Scotland is quite unique.  It is the only airport in which the runways are on a beach.  In fact, during high tide, the runways are entirely under water!  Obviously, flights are scheduled according to the tides.  Adding to the complication is that the beach is used by people!  The airport flies a windsock when it is in operation and individuals are expected to vacate the area.  However, when there is no windsock flying, people visit and it is very popular with cockle pickers.  Better be careful to watch the sock!

Last, but certainly not least on the list of dangerous and tricky landings is the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, Nepal.  This airport has earned the moniker “Deadliest Airport in the World” for the past twenty years.  It has a short runway of 1,729 feet which also has a nearly 12% grade, is nestled in the Himalayan mountains at over 9,000 feet in altitude, and the end of the runway is a steep drop-off of several hundred feet into the valley below.  There is little room for pilot error!  Adding to the difficulty of navigating the airspace is there is no radar system allowing individuals to monitor the airspace and assist the pilots in navigation.  Citing the high cost of such a system, the government has opted to forgo adding the technology.  Pilots must be highly skilled and visually aware to successfully navigate this area.  If you plan to climb Mt. Everest, make sure your pilot is prepared!

The next time you travel, remember how much time and training your pilot has put into his craft and give them a “thanks.”  They have earned it!