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Real Pilots Discuss: Most Challenging Airports to Land At Large

Real Pilots Discuss: Most Challenging Airports to Land At


Aviation technology has continuously improved at a dramatic pace since the first powered, manned flight of the Wright Brothers in 1904, but technology is only half the story. The expertise of the pilots remains more important than any gadget, no matter how advanced.

Pilots need around 1,500 hours’ flying experience during a 16 month long course, and they’d better have a passion for the work, as the training can cost up to £70,000. If that’s not enough, there’s also no guarantee they’ll get a job to start paying off those student loans. How does all this tie into challenging airports? In this article we aren’t just looking at the dramatics of some of the toughest challenges pilots face around the world, but also the skill, training and doggedness with which they face those challenges.

We even have a few pilots discussing their personal favourites with us!



Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport | Saba | Caribbean Islands

At only 400m in length this is either the shortest or one of the shortest commercial runways in the world, but if that’s not enough to get your adrenaline pumping, then the surrounding terrain may just do the trick. The Saba Airport runway is flanked by cliffs on one side and the sea on the other, making the approach angle particularly tricky. Naturally, the runway is too short for jet aircraft, leaving only helicopters and propeller aircraft able to complete a landing.

Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport


Hai Pong Airport | Haiphong City | Vietnam

Contributed by Captain Frank Tonkin

Hai Pong Airport | Haiphong City | Vietnam
Hai Pong Airport | Haiphong City | Vietnam

“My flying career in the SAAF (South African Air Force) and now South African Airways had and has us flying in and out of mostly safe and reasonable airports with decent approach aids and good runways.

The most challenging part of most flights for pilots is the approach and landing, and taking off in bad weather, especially with a heavy aircraft and strong cross winds, is probably the most challenging thing most of us will face. I have had my fair share of all those!

There were some hairy take-offs out of Ondangwa airfield, with heavy (armour-laden) Impala jet aircraft taking off at high temperatures during the Angola war. There were no real airport problems flying F1's (Mirages), other than landing on the fairly short runway at Rundu with a heavy aircraft.

Airline flying wise, I did a two month flying contract in Vietnam in 1997 (based in Ho Chi Minh City – the old Saigon), flying a Boeing 737 as a co-pilot and there was only one fairly tricky airport we flew to called Hai Phong, in the north east of Vietnam. It was only four metres above sea level, had a short runway, was in a valley and was always very misty. There were very few approach aids, no ILS (Instrument Landing System) no approach lights, no VOR (Radio beacon), in fact it only had a NDB (Non-directional beacon) which are rarely used now-days.

We always had to do a monitored approach, that is when the co-pilot flies the aircraft (head down on instruments) and the captain monitors the flying, but is ‘head up’, looking for the airfield and runway. We basically had to fly over the NDB beacon at a specific height, hit the stop watch, then descend to our minimum safe height above the ground and hope to see the runway after a determined time. The speed and timing had to be very accurate, but because of the bad visibility in the mist, we quite often never saw the runway and had to divert to another airport or back to Saigon.”



Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport | Hong Kong | China

The seemingly outrageous planning of the facility was not actually the fault of the designers. It was the city of Hong Kong that expanded increasingly towards the airport over the years. Wikipedia puts it best, “With numerous skyscrapers and mountains located to the north and its only runway jutting out into Victoria Harbour, landings at the airport were dramatic to experience and technically demanding for pilots.”

Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport
Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport


Tribhuvan International Airport | Kathmandu | Nepal

Contributed by Anonymous Pilot

Tribhuvan International Airport | Kathmandu | Nepal
Tribhuvan International Airport | Kathmandu | Nepal

Unfortunately, due to the importance of client and operator privacy, the pilot isn’t legally permitted to divulge his name.

“Every aerodrome around the world poses a potential threat one way or another to a pilot. However there are more challenging airports which airline pilots are subjected to. These require additional training to highlight potential threats and the mitigation of those threats. From an airline operations perspective, a very challenging airport would be Kathmandu, Nepal.

The aerodrome is located at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, with terrain as high as 27,000ft above mean sea level. The runway is directed at the terrain for landing, in a basin 4500ft above mean sea level. What makes this such a challenge is the type of aircraft used to operate into the port. The aircraft used here are wide body Airbus A330's which are landed on this 46m wide runway and circumnavigated in between terrain which requires the highest level of situational awareness and training.

This approach gives airline pilots the opportunity to see what the aircraft is capable of doing, well within the safety boundaries of its maximum capabilities, which is phenomenal.”

Interestingly enough, Tribhuvan’s problems don’t end with the runway. The airport itself was voted as one of the most hated according to CNN.



Paro Airport | Paro Chhu River | Bhutan

Paro Airport is known pretty much universally as presenting the most challenging landing for pilots. It is, in fact, so tricky that it is said only a limited number of pilots have clearance to attempt it, and with 181,659 people arriving at the last report in 2012, those pilots must be kept rather busy.

The challenge comes from the need to navigate between two 18,000 foot mountains in the Himalayas and continue past nearby suburban homes – all to land on a narrow, 3,900 foot runway. The approach is so challenging that planes are only permitted to attempt it during daylight hours.

Paro Airport
Paro Airport


Wellington International Airport | Rongotai | Wellington

In, probably, the most gripping video, watch as around half a dozen pilots are forced to give up on the idea of making a landing at all. According to local site, Stuff.co.nz, the highest local winds ever recorded reached 248km/h and in the windiest year, gale force winds persisted for 233 days. Tackling Wellington International Airport is a testament to the skill of pilots, both those who managed to land successfully as well as those with the experience to know when it wasn’t a good idea to try.

Wellington Airport
Wellington Airport


Hundreds of hours of training for every sort of situation, is the ongoing achievement of pilots from around the world. It takes a special passion for the job, extreme concentration and the capacity to shoulder the responsibility of the hundreds of lives being shepherded to their destination. To reach a remote location or simply arrive closer to your final destination than a scheduled service would allow, charter a private jet with Air Charter Service today.

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