Technological improvements continue to make air travel safer every year. But just because there hasn’t been a fatal commercial plane crash in the U.S. since 2009 doesn’t mean that certain airports don’t quicken your pulse just a bit. Short runways, steep descents and unpredictable surfaces can make a thrill ride out of getting a 987,000-pound vehicle (the maximum weight of a 747) on or off the ground.
Who needs a paved runway when you have endless amounts of hard, flat ice to land on? Pilots say the ice isn’t that different from concrete. Well, except in the Antarctic summer, December through June, when the sea-to-ice ratio starts to get a little soupy. Even in winter, the weight of passengers and cargo causes planes to sink a couple of inches when they come to a stop.
World's Most Hair-Raising Airports: Princess Juliana International, St. Maarten
Compared to some other airports on this list, St. Maarten’s 7,546-foot runway doesn’t sound so short — until you try to land a 747 on it. Princess Juliana’s ability to handle jumbo jets (barely) makes it the Eastern Caribbean’s second–busiest airport, and a favorite among plane spotters at Maho Beach who watch the planes skim over their heads. For them, it’s literally a hair-raising experience.
World's Most Hair-Raising Airports: Gustaf III Airport, St. Barthelemy
Before relaxing on St. Bart’s French Caribbean beaches, you must survive a positively frightful landing. The 2,133-foot runway is surrounded by mountains on three sides — making for a descent so steep it practically feels like a nosedive — and St. Jean Beach on the fourth side, which sunbathers are warned to avoid in case a plane can’t stop in time. Runway overruns are a fact of life here.
World's Most Hair-Raising Airports: Hopkins International, Cleveland
Wandering onto the wrong runway can have deadly consequences. In 2006, 49 people died when Comair Flight 5191 crashed after overshooting the wrong runway at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky. Between 1981 and 2006, 80 aircraft used the wrong runway at a U.S. airport; nearly a quarter of those incidents were at Hopkins International in Cleveland, whose runways are close together and converge in some areas. In 2011, the airport installed concrete foam blocks to stop planes from running off the shortest runway’s end.
World's Most Hair-Raising Airports: Barra International Airport, Barra, Scotland
Plan your arrival in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands carefully: The landing strip at Barra International Airport disappears twice a day at high tide. The only international airport with a sand runway, Barra is known simply as Traigh Mhor beach when it’s not an airport. Scheduled service is limited to 19-passenger Twin Otters; planes with narrower wheelbases sometimes sink in the sand. Remember: When the wind sock is blowing, planes are coming and going.
World's Most Hair-Raising Airports: Matekane Air Strip, Lesotho
This landlocked, mountainous country, surrounded by South Africa, doesn’t have a lot of flat land for an airport. So pilots who shuttle in food, medical supplies and the Lesotho Flying Doctor Service rely on makeshift runways like this 1,300-foot airstrip. Bush pilot Tom Claytor says landing isn’t nearly as nerve-wracking as taking off, which sometimes requires speeding off the end of the cliff before getting airborne. You “drop down the 2,000-foot cliff face until you start flying,” Claytor says.
World's Most Hair-Raising Airports: Funchal Airport, Madeira Island, Portugal
That’s not terra firma you hit when you land on Portugal’s Madeira Island, but rather a 600-foot-wide bridge. Local authorities commissioned the innovative design after TAP Portugal Flight 425 overran the previous, shorter runway in 1977, killing 131 people. The reinforced concrete bridge, which extended the runway’s length to 9,190 feet to accommodate 747s, won an award from the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering. There have been no accidents since.
World's Most Hair-Raising Airports: Wellington International, Wellington, New Zealand
New Zealand’s capital is often known as Windy Wellington. The city’s location, overlooking the Cook Strait between New Zealand’s two islands, makes it a virtual wind tunnel. The airport has experienced only a few minor incidents, but pilots still struggle to keep aircraft from skating around the runway when it’s blowing a gale.
World's Most Hair-Raising Airports: Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba
The tiny Dutch Caribbean island of Saba, population 1,824, is home to an equally Lilliputian landing strip. The 1,300-foot runway at Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport is barely longer than an aircraft carrier and is flanked by steep cliffs on both ends, making it inhospitable to all but the smallest planes. Windward Islands Airways is the only scheduled carrier to fly in and out of Saba; it makes several harrowing landings daily from St. Maarten.
World's Most Hair-Raising Airports: LaGuardia International, New York
Flights in and out of LaGuardia International in New York must dodge not only Manhattan’s skyline, but also planes flying to and from John F. Kennedy International Airport 10 miles southeast and Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., 17 miles west. LaGuardia’s runways end at Flushing Bay, making it seem as if you’re about to hit the water up until the second you touch down. Rest assured, though: Around 1,000 flights take off and land here successfully every day.