A flat stretch of terrain; no hazardously tall buildings nearby. Both seem like obvious considerations when choosing a brand new airport location. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to find ideal building space in a burgeoning cosmopolitan city, and many engineers are forced to scale down their ideas in favour of something a little more suited to the urban landscape. But, that’s not to say they always get it right! We explore some of the wackiest airports around the globe, and what makes them so downright weird!
Qamdo Bangda Airport
With its lofty elevation 14,000 feet above sea level, Qamdo Bangda, Tibet, steals the crown for the highest airport in the world. Set amid a rocky amphitheatre of jagged, snow-capped mountains and rolling clouds, Qamdo Bangda Airport boasts impressive panoramas of the Tibetan landscape, but that’s not all this altitudinous airfield is famous for. At just over 3.5 miles in length, Qamdo Bangda’s stupendously long runway is one of the largest (and most ridiculed) in the world for landing passenger jets. Of course, it all makes sense when you consider that high altitude, poor visibility and precarious rock formations make this one of the most difficult places to land a plane in Asia!
Nestled snugly between the sun-soaked holiday meccas of Morocco and Spain lies an historic British territory with one of the oldest continuous airports still in operation. Home to the British Royal Air Force for over 60 years, Gibraltar Airport has little changed since its construction in 1942 – partly due to the fact there is little in the way of flat land for further development.
Due to Gibraltar’s rugged topography, the runway was designed to intersect the main road of the island, Winston Churchill Avenue. Little separates the traffic from the runway, apart from two rail crossing style gates on either side of the ride, which are manually controlled. Fortunately it’s a system that has worked pretty well for the people of Gibraltar, and despite the dangers posed, there have been no serious plane/ car related accidents to speak of.
The Ice Runway
Icy conditions might pose a risk for some drivers, but for pilots in the Antarctic, black ice and blizzard conditions are no obstacle when bringing a Cessna in to land. The aptly named “Ice Runway” is little more than a vast stretch of groomed ice next to the McMurdo Station, a US research centre located at the Southernmost tip of Ross Island. Antarctica’s Ice Runway is primarily used by large carrier planes such as the C130 Hercules to bring supplies to the island, although, even this can prove difficult if the ice begins to disintegrate. There are no lights or markers to speak of, meaning pilots can only rely on their better judgement to land planes safely.
The Outer Hebrides, Scotland
What’s the obvious solution if you don’t have enough land for an airport? The beach, of course. Situated at picturesque Traigh Mhòr Bay on the North coast of Barra, the Outer Hebridean beach airport is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world. Due to tidal changes, flights can only be scheduled for arrival and departure during the day, and even then pilots must make a precautionary flyover to check for debris on the beach before landing. Unlike most airports, Barra Aerodrome uses a simple system of cones, wooden poles and reflective strips to mark out the runway, which so far, have never failed in efficacy!
Kansai International Airport
When you run out of land to develop in a coastal city, there’s only one option: create a new land mass somewhere along the coast. Built upon a huge artificial island spanning 2.5 miles in length, Kansai International Airport was the result of years of public lobbying for a second aerodrome to relieve congestion at the city’s mainland airport. Situated 50 km from the heart of Osaka, the grid-like, floating island airport now handles approximately 80% of all commercial flights to the city, and is easily accessed by car, plane or ferry.
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport
Saba Island, Netherland Antilles
Faced with the difficult challenge of finding somewhere relatively flat on an island made of rocks, planning officials chose a flat, rocky precipice on the North East of Saba island, just long enough for a runway to be built.
Some might say their vision was a little too ambitious, as during construction, engineers discovered the runway would be significantly shorter than planned – just 396 metres (1,300 feet) in length. Couple this with the fact the runway veers off the cliff at an elevation of just 18 metres above sea level, and it’s not difficult to understand why passenger jets are prohibited from landing here!
Toncontin International Airport
Situated in a low basin surrounded by mountains, Toncontin International Airport in Honduras has long come under scrutiny for the many dangers posed by its location. Constructed in 1934, the airport was originally intended for small domestic flights, and as such, was built with a relatively short, single runway. Despite extension of the runway to 7,096 feet in 2007, the airport once again came under the spotlight the following year after a plane misjudged the approach and crashed, killing five people. The airport continues to operate international flights daily, and is now ranked the second most dangerous airport in the world by makers of the History Channel’s “Most Extreme Airports”.
Hong Kong International Airport
Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong
If there’s one thing guaranteed to make you miss a flight in Hong Kong, it’s getting caught out by the 18th hole. Designed to showcase the exceptional workmanship of Chinese engineers, the ambitious Hong Kong International Airport was constructed upon a purpose-built island of reclaimed land in 1998, and remains to this day one of the most expensive airport projects in world history. Among its many notable assets is a large golf course, built under the flight path at Terminal 1. Fortunately planes have gathered enough height at this point they don’t pose any danger to players, however, you may have some trouble concentrating on your game with a 747 just 20 feet above your head!
With a runway length of just 460 metres, coupled with a 12 degree slope, the runway at Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Nepal, is the most dangerous in the world for landing planes. In fact, so precariously steep and narrow is this tiny landing station, that only aircraft with STOL (short take off and landing capacities) can clear it safely. The airport is only licensed for passenger flights, many of which are chartered specifically by hiking and climbing groups en route to Mount Everest.
Image 1: Stornaway Runway
Image 2: By Tossmeanote
Image 3: Ice Runway by Eli Duke
Image 4: Barra Beach, Russavia
Image 5: Saba Island Airport, Russavia
Image 6: Tenzing Airport, Steve Hicks