When people talk about the world’s most dangerous (or exciting depending on your point of view) airport landings, the focus is always on the passengers and crews in the plane – but what about the people on the ground?
Recent footage of a Wizz Air plane coming in to land on the Greek island of Skiathos at Skiathos Alexandros Papadiamantis Airport has raised exactly that question, with the plane barely clearing the heads of enthusiasts gathered at the end of the notoriously short runway. The extraordinary video uploaded by plane fan GreatFlyer shows just how close they came, with the jet wash blowing people backwards and sending paraphernalia flying into the water just feet away.
The short runway, necessitated by the island’s size and layout, means pilots have to make an extremely low approach and land as close to its end as possible. This has made it a popular attraction for photographers and thrill seekers keen to get some crazy up close and personal footage, despite the warning signs.
Another spot famed for its low approach flying is Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. Flying mere feet above the beach that backs onto the runway, larger planes need to use every inch of the 7,500 foot runway to make a safe landing. Despite the crowds that gather regularly to watch, the danger to life is very real here – in 2017 a woman was killed by a jet engine blast as she clinged to the airport perimeter fence below.
Since the closure of Hong Kong’s legendary Kai Tak airport (affectionately known as the ‘heart attack approach’) in 1998, perhaps the most intimidating and up close urban landing is London City airport in the UK.
Flying directly over surrounding skyscrapers before banking hard around the Canary Wharf building to line up for the approach, planes also have to descend at an alarmingly steep angle to make the runway. For passengers, taking off is just as exhilarating – and as someone who once worked in a building directly in front of the runway, I can testify that seeing planes coming directly at you before banking sharply away at seemingly the last minute is equally bracing for those on the ground (or several stories up).
Reaching for the highs rather than the lows is perhaps the riskiest airport of all to land at – Lukla Airport in Nepal. Its alternate name, Tenzing-Hillary Airport, offers a clue to its location as the gateway to Everest. Surrounded by towering peaks and laid out on a cliffside, after 1,729 feet it drops away to an abyss and thanks to its unique position offers no chance to abort and try again – once pilots are committed, they have to land. The runway is even slanted upwards to help slow planes down in time.
My personal favorite however, is the awe-inspiring Paro Airport in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Sitting 7,364 feet above sea level but set low in the tangled valleys of the Himalaya, the approach is a roller coaster of steep banking turns, wingtips seemingly skimming the surrounding slopes.
With no radar available, approaches must be made manually and as such are only allowed in clear visibility and daylight hours, with fewer than 20 pilots qualified to land here. The flight is undoubtedly spectacular but I can also testify to the fear factor it induces – flying in with Drukair (Royal Bhutan Airways) in 2014, I was surprised and a little discombobulated to hear the air steward whimper an audible “oh, God!” as the pilot announced our imminent landing!