Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world

You might want to avoid these scary airports if you plan on traveling to any of the countries they are based in. You won't regret it.
Christopher McFadden
  • Air travel can be a thrilling experience, but for some, it can also be a source of anxiety, especially when landing and taking off at certain airports.
  • From short runways perched atop towering mountains to airports surrounded by deep ocean waters, several airports worldwide are notorious for being nerve-racking and downright scary to fly into.
  • But which are the scariest around?

Regarding traveling long distances, flying on an airplane is one of the fastest, safest, and easiest ways to reach your destination. Unfortunately, not every runway has long, flat stretches.

This means that pilots have to be exceptionally skilled to land on a runway carved into a mountain or one that appears in a narrow valley. Bearing that in mind, here are 10 or more of the world's scariest or most challenging airports to land at.

1. Saba Airport is a hazardous airport to approach

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Saba Airport must be pretty scary to land at.

Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, known as Saba Airport, is one of the world's scariest airports. Located on the Dutch Caribbean island of Saba, it lies about 27 miles (45 kilometers) south of St. Maarten. 

Its runway is a pitiful 1300 feet (400 meters) long, making it one of the shortest commercial airports in the world. This tiny runway length means only the best pilots have what it takes to land and take off safely. 

But its short runway is not the only hazard would-be approaching pilots need to be aware of. The airport is surrounded by jagged terrain and a sharp left bank immediately before landing. 

It might be safer to take the ferry or swim if you want to visit this place. 

2. Congonhas Airport has a very short runway

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
It is a real thrill to land at Congonhas Airport.

Congonhas International Airport in São Paulo, Brazil, is not only scary but also one of the world's most dangerous airports. Another airport with a short runway is located in a heavily built-up portion of the enormous city; it feels as if you're scraping the tops of high-rise buildings as you land here.

One of four airports serving the city, it has become famed for its risky runways that are often accused of being the slipperiest in the world because its runway had not been constructed with proper grooves to drain away excess rainwater, leading to a build-up of standing water at times. This has resulted in a large number of fatal crashes.

In fact, over the years, there have been some severe accidents at the airport. One notable example occurred in 2007 when TAM Airlines Airbus A320 overran runway 35L during moderate rain. The plane crashed into a nearby warehouse, killing all 187 people on board and 12 civilians on the ground. 

3. You might want to avoid traveling to Telluride Regional Airport

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Telluride Regional Airport is one of the highest.

Telluride Regional Airport is located in southwest Colorado and is widely considered one of the scariest in the world. Around 5 miles (8 km) west of Telluride, it is one of America's highest airports by elevation, at 9,070 feet (2.76 km).

It was built in the 1980s and boasted over 9,400 operations yearly, at least before the current COVID-19 crisis. While relatively safe in reality, the approach to it can seem quite hair-raising. 

Located on a small plateau, it features 1,000-foot (300 mt) sheer cliffs at both ends of the runway, and pilots need to overcome solid vertical turbulence from the mountain winds during winter months. Not only that, but each end of the runway is slightly higher than the middle, creating a dip, although this was reduced during a 2009 renovation.

Many passengers who've taken the trip will confirm it's quite the white-knuckle ride. 

4. Svalbard Airport is built on permafrost

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Svalbard Airport is another scary airport.

Built on permafrost, Svalbard airport not only seems scary, but it is also an engineering marvel in its own right. The 8,000-foot (2438 mt) runway is built directly on ice in Norway's Arctic archipelago. Culverts under the runways allow water to run from the mountain. There are also no runway lights, so flights are only permitted during daylight. This may not seem like a big issue until you realize that the sun does not rise here in the winter.

The airport was built on permafrost, with the runway insulated against the ground so it would not melt during the summer.

While its safety record is excellent, its location as one of the world's northernmost airports can make flights to it very challenging for pilots. Inclement weather and the proximity to the Earth's magnetic north pole can create visibility and navigational difficulties for even the best pilots. 

For these reasons, one of Norway's worst air accidents occurred at this airport in 1996. A Russian flight bound for Longyearbyen crashed into a mountain after being about 2 miles (3.2 km) off its approach centerline, killing all 141 passengers on board. Crash investigations later concluded that pilot error was the cause of the crash. 

5. Wellington International Airport is built in the mountains

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Wellington International Airport really is in the mountains.

Located in New Zealand, Wellington International Airport is yet another of the world's most challenging airports to land at. Featuring 6,350 feet (1935 meters) long runway, both ends appear to start and end in water. 

Approaching it is also tricky for pilots, as the airport is located in a mountainous area of the country, which is famed for its gusty winds, making maneuvering for landings even more tricky. Even after landing, strong gusts can sweep passengers off their feet. Despite this, there have been very few safety incidents.

Other than that, in the past, the airport had been recognized as having one of the best terminals in the world. Despite this, it is constantly ranked among the scariest places to land worldwide. 

6. Gisborne Airport has a rail track running through it

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Gisborne Airport.

Another entry from New Zealand, Gisborne Airport, is considered one of the world's most difficult airports. Located on the outskirts of Gisborne, this airport has a railway intersecting its runway at one point. 

It has three grass runways and one main runway; landings require accurate coordination with approaching trains. For this reason, it is not uncommon for either planes or trains to be delayed to allow the other to pass safely. 

7. Lukla Airport is nestled in the Himalayas

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Lukla Airport is in the Himilayas.

The Lukla Airport, technically Tenzing–Hillary Airport, in Nepal, is the main airport for those visiting Mt. Everest. Part of what makes this airport so tricky to land on is the way it is nestled between mountains and the incredibly short length of the runway.

The airport is relatively small. The airport sometimes loses electric power, cutting off communication with the controllers. This makes landings risky even in perfect conditions.

The airport is positioned 9,325 feet (2.84 km) high and is built on the side of a mountain. The runway is in one direction only and is just 1,600 feet (488 m) long, with severe slopes and angles. At one end of the runway is a mountain wall; the other is a dramatic 2,000-foot (600 mt) plunge into the valley.

8. Courchevel International Airport has one of the world's shortest runways

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Courchevel International Airport is not flat.

A video of a landing at the Courchevel airport went viral a few years ago, as it has one of the shortest runways of any airport in the world, at 1,722 feet (525 meters). Not only this, but the paved runway has a downward slope of 18.5%, making taking off even more difficult.

To add to the already tricky landing, the runway is built into the Alps, where pilots must fly through a narrow valley to prepare for descent. Only specially-certified pilots are allowed to land here. The airport is not equipped with lights or instrumentation aids, so in bad weather, landing is impossible.

9. Toncontin Airport, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is built in a valley

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Toncontin Airport has a tiny runway.

As you may have noticed, airports in the mountains are tough to land on due to their varying terrain and often short approaches. Toncontin Airport is no different.

For planes to prepare for the descent, they must make a rapid 45-degree bank turn to reach the runway in a valley, an approach likened to landing on an aircraft carrier. After this bank, planes must rapidly drop altitude, careful not to scrape the terrain directly underneath. Wind gusts and poor weather also hamper the approach. 

10. The approach direction to Princess Juliana International Airport in St. Maarten is actually over a beach

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Juliana International Airport is next to a beach.

Like some other runways in the Caribbean Sea, Princess Juliana Airport, located in Saint Maarten, is perhaps the most famous on the list. This is partly because of the public beach situated just before the runway.

Planes must approach the water at an extremely low altitude. This often results in significant and loud gusts of wind and sand engulfing those enjoying the crystal blue water below. For the pilots, however, bothering visitors is not the only worry.

The runway is only around 1.36 miles (2.2 km) long, which is very short considering many large aircraft that land here generally require more than 2,500 meters to ensure a safe landing. Princess Juliana was initially built for smaller planes, but the booming tourist industry has brought A340s and 747s into the regular traffic rotation.

11. Only a handful of pilots can land at Paro Airport

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Panorama of Paro Airport, Bhutan.

Tucked away in the Himalayas, Paro Airport is famous for being one of the world's most difficult to land at. Only a handful of pilots are qualified to do so. 

The airport lies about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) above sea level in Bhutan. Sounds pleasant enough, but be mindful that the airport is surrounded by sharp peaks, up to 18,000 feet (5,500 meters) tall. 

Its runway is 6,500 feet (1,980 m) long and only allows for arrivals and departures during the daytime. The most challenging part is that pilots cannot see the runway until the last minute as they must maneuver between mountains at a 45-degree angle before finally dropping quickly onto the runway. At one point during the approach, planes must come close to mountaintop homes, and one red cliffside home even serves as a critical marker for pilots. 


12. Gibraltar International Airport has a street running through it

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Gibraltar International Airport.

Gibraltar International Airport is probably the most unusual airport in southern Europe. While the runway isn't hard to land at, an exciting design feature makes it potentially dangerous.

The city's main street, Winston Churchill Avenue, intersects with the runway and has to be closed when a plane needs to land. A stoplight on the road tells cars to stop, but there have been several close calls in the airport's history. The short runway also ends abruptly at sea on both ends, forcing pilots to stop very quickly immediately after landing.

13. McMurdo Air Station in Antarctica can get pretty icy

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
McMurdo Air Station is very remote.

Not many people travel to Antarctica, so the airport infrastructure is significantly lacking. This runway isn't particularly short but is built on "white ice" (compacted snow), making it challenging to land well, even in good weather conditions. In 1970, a C-121 slid off the runway and still sits on its side, buried in snow.

During the winter, the area is dark 24 hours a day. The airport has no lights on the runway, and during the non-infrequent whiteouts, pilots must land blind, using night vision equipment.

14. Landing at Madeira Airport in Portugal is a white-knuckle ride

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Madeira Airport is fun.

Madeira Airport is one of the few in the world where engineers built a platform to expand the runway. The landing strip sits between cliffs and the shores of the ocean.

Engineers built a series of platforms on an artificial island to expand the runway. The runway is held up by more than 180 columns, which have to withstand the shock of landings.

Only a limited amount of pilots are qualified to land at this airport. Pilots must navigate their approach by spotting landmarks and cannot land by instrument alone.  To make it more difficult, there are strong winds, high mountains on one side, and the ocean on the other.

15. MCAS Futenma, Okinawa, has high-density housing nearby

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
MCAS Futenma is another scary airport.

This airport is on a US Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa, Japan. The airstrip is in the middle of a crowded city, with houses, parks, schools, and businesses crowding right up to the fence. It is also a busy airport, as F/A-18 Hornets and V-22 Osprey continuously land here.

In fact, the situation of MCAS Futenma directly violates the safety standards set down for military airfields by the U.S. Department of the Navy. In 2003, it was recommended that the Navy shut down the airport. Still, it remained open, and in 2004 a CH 53 Sea Stallion crashed into one of the school buildings on the nearby campus of Okinawa International University. It was blind luck that no one was killed. 

To this day, the airport remains open.

16. Narsarsuaq Airport, Greenland, might be the world's most dangerous airport

Brace yourself: exploring the top scariest airports in the world
Narsarsuaq Airport might be the most dangerous to land at.

Like Antarctica, Greenland's extreme airports are often covered in ice. This runway is difficult for pilots at only 5,900 feet (1,800 meters) in length and canvassed in smooth ice.

The weather is also often stormy, creating intense turbulence and low visibility on approach, making it very uncomfortable for both flight crew and passengers. Wind shears affect planes which, coupled with the icy runway, can direct them off their course.

The nearby active volcano also occasionally erupts, sending ash into the clouds, which can stall and destroy engines.  

And that's a wrap.

Have you ever traveled to any of these airports? Are they as dangerous as people say?

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