There's a sobering saying among pilots: "Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing." And it's not until you fly into places like Toncontìn Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, that the adage starts to make sense. Toncontìn has one of the world's shortest international runways and requires a series of hard last-minute banks. It's no wonder it gives even the most seasoned pilots -- not to mention their passengers -- the sweats.
While Paro's airport in Bhutan is the most extreme example -- only eight pilots in the world are qualified to fly into Paro -- a number of the world's airports, from St. Maarten in the Caribbean to Madeira Airport in Funchal, can present challenges for pilots. "A lot of these airports require additional training and route familiarization because they're so crazy," says one commercial pilot who flies international routes.
According to aviation experts, mitigating factors range from the truncated length of runways to unique atmospheric and meteorological conditions, dramatic geographical settings, heavy air traffic or a combination thereof. "Sometimes it's just the way the airport is laid out that makes it a pain," says the pilot, referring to whether an airport is situated askew.
And it's not always the landing that's the stuff of lore. Matekane Air Strip, in the tiny African kingdom of Lesotho, features a stunted 1,312-foot-long runway perched at the edge of a couloir that sits at 7,550 feet. According to celebrated bush pilot Tom Claytor, depending on the wind during takeoff, it's entirely possible for the aircraft not to be airborne by the end of the airstrip. "Instead," he says, "you shoot off the end of the airstrip, then drop down the 2,000-foot cliff face until you start flying." It's enough to make you take the train.
-- Farhad Heydari