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January 23, 2007

Scary Airports

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Ever fly into the Juneau, Alaska airport? Not me. Not yet, anyway. But friends of mine who've lived in Juneau tell me it can produce more than its share of sweaty-palm moments.

I'm told that the reason it's scary has to do with the fact that it's partly boxed in by nearby mountains. Here is a link showing a small topographical map of the area -- the airport is hard to spot, but look in the lower center area.

There is more than just the mountains. The weather is another important factor. The Alaska panhandle is a cloudy, rainy place much of the year. So, when on landing approach, you know those mountains are out there in the gray murk you're flying through. Probably nearby. Maybe closer than they should be. Hope and pray radar and instruments are working properly.

A potentially scary airport I've yet to experience is San Diego's. The normal landing path is east-to-west near the hill where Balboa Park is situated and then over downtown. Back in the 80s an airliner on approach collided with a light plane and crashed.

The airports I've flown into that make me nervous tend to be those in cramped locations. National Airport near Washington and New York's LaGuardia are two examples. National is tucked next to the Potomac River and its main runway is about 6,900 feet long (and seemed shorter the last time I used it, 15+ years ago). La Guardia's runways are about 150 feet longer, but the airport is boxed in by Long Island Sound. Unless you're landing to the north (and waving at friends in the Shea Stadium parking lot), landing approaches are over water.

Another cramped airport is Chicago's Midway, where the longest runway is 6,500 feet. But I've never used it. I have flown in and out of the Albany, NY airport (7,000-foot runway), but mostly got to watch Mohawk and Allegheny airliners passing a thousand feet or so from my apartment window in Colonie.

Other airports sited by water that can make passengers worry include Boston's Logan, Oakland and San Francisco. The landing path to San Francisco's airport is normally from the southeast, over the bay. Back in the 60s a Japan Air Lines DC-8 touched down a few hundred feet short; luckily the bay was shallow where it hit, and most of the fuselage stayed above the water.

When I was younger and a more-nervous flyer, even long, flat approaches to airports far from water bothered me. I'm thinking of Chicago's O'Hare and coming in south-north where we seemed to be grazing roofs of factories and warehouses forever.

I've flown into Seattle's airport more than 100 times and nearly always find myself wondering if the wheels will get clipped on a too-low approach. That's because the airport is situated on a hill with sunken roads and lower terrain just beyond each of the runways.

Airports I find most stress-free are those in spacious settings with long (say 11,000 feet or more) runways. Washington's Dulles and Dallas-Fort Worth come to mind.

(I wrote about odd runways here and small airports here.)

Feel free to mention your scary and non-scary favorites in Comments. But let's restrict airports to those large enough to serve standard airliners such as Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s.



posted by Donald at January 23, 2007


My personal best were the runways in Uliastai and Tosontsengel, Mongolia. Short, dirt-surface, and the terminals were log cabins built at the end of the runway, so you could only take off or land in one direction, tailwinds be damned. And yes, we were in 737s, or something equivalent. Of course, the prevelence of carry-on items such as sheep carcasses and cans of gasoline (no smoking restrictions on MIAT, either) added considerably to the ambiance!

Posted by: Peculiar on January 23, 2007 6:22 PM

> let's restrict airports to those large enough to serve standard airliners such as Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s

Let's not, because that wold ban my recollection of the ten years my sister lived on the Shetland Islands, where British Airways operated twin turboprops onto an airstrip that was basically a strip of sand linking two islands, a couple of hundred yards wide, with the North Sea on one side and the North Atlantic on the other. I'm told they didn't fly if you could actually see wave tops over the sand dunes, but not much else stopped them.

Probably a hell of a lot more interesting & fun for the pilot sthan bus-driving a 737. I remember one time when nobody was allowed to sit in the last six rows, "to allow for the weight of ice that is going to build up on the tail". Oh. OK then.

If I may suggest another criterion - this *was* an international airport. Not only because Shetlanders dislike their Scottish colonial oppressors; there was also the odd flight to/from Norway.

Interesting place, Shetland. In a grim sort of way.

If you really want to insist on airports big enough to take 737s, I'm told Innsbruck can be quite sporting, for much the same reasons as Juneau. In over the Alps and drop like a stone.

Posted by: Alan Little on January 23, 2007 6:49 PM

Since I do this for a living, I'm always interested in what outsiders think of aviation.

In general, it's pretty unlikely for a modern airliner in a developed country to clip a hill - not only are two pilots looking out the window, we are usually guided vertically by both high-precision lighting and radio glidepaths. Any idiot can pick his way down an ILS - it's a stable power-on glide directly to where you want to be on the runway.

DCA, on the other hand, is scary for all kinds of other reasons.

The big reason is the "River Visual"

Three factors here interact in a way that's always interesting.

1: You can't fly to the east of the Potomac - it's all protected airspace - so you have to fly down the river, banking left and right at low altitude while trying to maintain your speed/spacing with the airplanes in front of and behind you.

2: This means you can't use an electronic glidepath and you have to estimate your crossing altitudes at specific bridges over the river. Of course, in bad visibility at 200 knots, they all look alike

3: There is a visual glidepath - but it's lined up with the wrong runway - in fact, with a runway so short you might end up in the Potomac if you try to land on it. To get to the right runway, you follow the visual lights to the wrong runway, then fake towards the "wrong" (east) side, and then hook back in at the last moment to the actual correct runway which is cranked in from the river. Too tight and you'll be too high above the runway, too loose a turn and you're over the Washington Monument, which is considered bad form by the Secret Service

4: Once you make this turn, four to six wingspans above the ground, you immediately have to simultaneously put the path of the airplane directly down the runway centerline and point the nose directly down the runway centerline - which can be hard, given the wind.

5: Oh, and the runway's short. On the other end is ... The Potomac.

Once you get used to it the approach becomes like driving home down a mountain road - you know it well enough that it's not a problem. The first few times can be an eye-opener though.

On the other hand, those over-water approaches?

Easiest thing in the world. Nice flat reference surface and nothing to hit.

Posted by: secret asian man on January 23, 2007 7:27 PM

The Hong Kong airport was extremely cramped in 1983, and as I remember the plane made a 160 degree turn or so on the way in and flew between two buildings.

A friend used to be a bush pilot in Alaska. He quit after 1.) successfully landing in near-zero visibility and 2.) realizing that the end of every chapter of the book on the great bush pilots of Alaska was about the same: "When they found the plane...."

Posted by: John Emerson on January 23, 2007 7:38 PM

Tegucigalpa airport in Nicaragua is in a volcanic bowl area. Steep in and steep out. Think roller coaster here.

The airport on the island of Avalon off Los Angeles is quite, er...exciting. It's barely long enough and starts at a cliff. The pilot has to set down quickly, because it also ends abruptly. Seeing it on approach, it looks impossible.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 23, 2007 11:02 PM

I have flown into San Diego. And you can just about look into the windows of the downtown office buildings as you go by. From the ground, watching the planes coming in over the city skyline, it's jaw-dropping to see how close they are to the buildings. The airport is right on the beach, so you'd think an approach from out over the ocean would have been saner.

Midway in Chicago is hemmed in by neighborhoods. In December of '05, there was an accident where a landing plane skidded off a runway, hit a passing car on the street outside the airport, and killed a kid in the car.

I live close to O'Hare, which at least has a little more land to sprawl across (though there's been talk of a need for a third Chicago airport for years). I have pleasant memories of a couple of air trips that ended with an approach from out over Lake Michigan with spectacular views of the downtown Chicago skyscrapers as I went by. I came in that way on one recent trip at twilight, and one of the expressways below was a glowing string of jewel-like headlights that stretched for miles (a Bears game had just let out).

Posted by: Dwight Decker on January 24, 2007 2:57 AM

I've avoided it since I first learned about it, but as I understand it one of the scariest places to land in the US is John Wayne Airport in Orange County. The runway's only 5700 feet long, making for some interesting landing procedures. So interesting in fact that pilots have to instruct the passengers before landing..."Folks, this is your captain speaking. If you've never flown in to JWA, this is going to be a unique experience for you......" Read the wikipedia entry to see how much fun landings can be. Takeoffs are just as much fun, too.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on January 24, 2007 8:55 AM

San Diego officials have been discussing a new airport for years. As I understand it, the most likely options are using part/all of Miramar Naval Air Station north of the city, or a boarder-spanning new airport that also would serve Tijuana.

John Emerson -
Hong Kong opened a huge new airport several years ago. The old Kai Tak airport was most recently being used as a storage area for used cars.

Posted by: Peter on January 24, 2007 9:05 AM

San Diego is fun -- you feel like you're coming in for a landing right in the middle of the city. St. Martin in the Caribbean is a hoot too. Planes (big ones) seem to be landing in the water, skim the beach by about 20 feet, and then set down. There are often videos of St. Martin landings to be seen on YouTube. Oh, here's a vivid 20 second clip of touchdown on St. Martin. Whee.

My hands can get sweaty while flying, but for some reason more during takeoff than landing. Subject matter for another blogposting perhaps.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 24, 2007 10:12 AM

Hey, here's a landing in Juneau. That's a lot of mountains!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 24, 2007 10:14 AM


Unfortunately the breeze comes in off the ocean at Lindbergh field, so coming in from the ocean isn't an option. You also have Point Loma, which is a honking big ridge right in the way of landings (and takeoffs :) ).

San Diego also has artificial landing hazards. Along with the downtown buildings there's also the infamous Laurel Travel Center; a parking structure most any airline pilot would love to unload a jdam on. We're still waiting for some half-loaded 747 to take out a car roof or two on landing.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 24, 2007 11:18 AM

About LaGuardia: The overwater approaches are not a problem, they're an advantage because there are no obstacles above the surface. All airliners are equipped with ground-proximity warning systems, which make a premature encounter with terrain very unlikely.

You do have to worry about overruns, though: three runway ends are directly adjacent to water, the other to a multi-lane highway. The biggest problem is the crowded airspace in the New York vicinity, with planes taking off and landing at LGA, JFK, and Newark. It is said that New York doesn't have three airports — it has one airport with three runway areas.

The controllers at LaGuardia sometimes have to assign unusual approaches to keep the traffic flowing. I'm told that if you fly into LGA you'd better know what you're doing, because the controllers are extremely impatient with any pilot flying who doesn't "get it" or deviates from instructions.

Posted by: Rick Darby on January 24, 2007 11:40 AM

The Wellington, NZ airport is said to be a bit scary because of the high winds blowing there all the time. I have actually landed at the old Hong Kong Kai Tak ("Heart Attack") airport. It was scary making turns close to a mountain and evading skyscrapers while trying to land in a 747.

Posted by: JM on January 24, 2007 2:45 PM

Hong Kong's new airport is regularly named the world's best, and it's wonderful -- US airports seem ridiculously amateurish to me now.

But I miss Kai Tak! The approach was incomparable -- right over the city, right down to people's apartment windows. The runway started directly across an ordinary city street from Kowloon City, which is a typically crowded Hong Kong neighborhood.

Posted by: mr tall on January 24, 2007 9:04 PM

The military base in my town (in Nevada) has a 14,000 foot runway. Yes, 14,000 feet.

Apparently, they're like 8th on the emergency list for space shuttle landings, if Edwards and all the others have bad weather or something.

Posted by: Joel on January 25, 2007 4:57 PM

Denver International Airport has one 16,000' and five 12,000' runways, and is in the middle of the prairie. Other than the fact that it's out in the middle of nowhere, it's very nice. (And its baggage handling is among the best I've seen.) According to the Wikipedia page, it's twice the size of Manhattan.

At the other end of the scale, there's Steamboat Springs. The runway there is at nearly 6900 feet and set in a bowl in the mountains. In the summer, getting out can be more of an adventure than most pilots would prefer (the phrase to remember is "density altitude"). There's not much obvious to the white-knuckle passenger though.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 25, 2007 9:57 PM

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