Why So Few Pilots Land at This Airport

by SharonKurheg

Some airports are more difficult for pilots to land at, than others. Here are some of the more difficult ones, and why:

Barra Airport, Scotland

It’s said that you won’t find an airport as weird as the one in Barra, Scotland, anywhere else in the world. The runway is built on sand. Landing is only possible if weather permits. And the tarmac can be completely submerged during high tide.

Reno-Tahoe Int’l Airport

They say that Reno-Tahoe International Airport is one of the most challenging airports in the U.S. to land and take off from. The main reason is that its runway is at an elevation of more than 4,000 feet. And to make matters worse, the high temperatures reduce air density, which makes it particularly dangerous in the summer.

Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Nepal

If you want to climb Mount Everest, the adventure begins when you land at the Tenzing-Hillary Airport (it’s also known as Lukla), in Nepal. It is considered one of the most dangerous, if not THE most dangerous airports in the world.

Located over 9324 feet (1-3/4 miles) above sea level, the airstrip is just 1729 feet long (as a comparison, the shortest runway at JFK is 8400 feet long). On top of that, the site is built on a cliffside, and is surrounded by mountains and chasms (the runway ends in a chasm. Don’t overrun it!). With all of that, it can only be accessed by helicopters and small aircraft.

Wellington Airport, New Zealand

The pilot needs to have a lot of skill and experience to land at the airport in Wellington, New Zealand. The runway is only about 6500 feet. Besides that, the airport is located in a mountainous area and is often hit by very strong gusts of wind. That makes landing really difficult, so you have to know your stuff.

Paro Airport, Bhutan

But the mother of all difficult airports for landing is Paro Airport in Bhutan.

There are several videos of planes landing at Paro, and you can get an idea of how difficult (and dangerous!) landing there actually is. Once you’ve seen a couple of the videos, read on to get a better understanding of what you were looking at:

There are more than 100 hazards that pilots have to take into account. On top of that, the geography surrounding the airport means that technology that’s usually used on an approach can’t be used there.

See, usually when a pilot approaches an airport, there are two devices at the airport that help them land. They communicate the horizontal position of the plane relative to the runway and how far above the runway the plane is. That way you know if you’re too far left or right, as well as how much further you have to descend, without having to eyeball it.

So these tools allow pilots to land at airports at night, during turbulence, or in poor visibility.

But at Paro Airport, the only device that a pilot has to rely on, aside from their instrument panel, are their eyes. They have to do it all in manual mode, according to exact procedures that were developed by experienced pilots and plane manufacturers.

So not only do you have to make an approach zig-zagging around mountains as high as 18,000 feet high, but you also have to do the whole thing by eyesight alone, using pre-determined landmarks on the ground. On top of that, the runway, which is 7300 feet above sea level (remember what we said about the elevation at Reno-Tahoe’s airport?), is also very short (6500 feet).

As a result of all this, a plane has to be flying at a specific speed and altitude at each of the points on the approach to ensure they have a safe landing.

Oh, and the final turn on the approach? Yeah, that’s made about 30 seconds before the tires hit the runway. Here’s a video of it:

No pressure.

And get this! We’re not talking about little turbo-prop planes making the descent into Paro Airport either. Nope, these are nearly all late-model Airbus A319s. So they’re not exactly little planes that are designed with extreme maneuverability in mind.

If you are a trained pilot, landing at a normal airport is relatively simple. But to be allowed to land at Paro, you need to undergo stringent testing. This involves simulations, as well as successfully carrying out multiple take-offs and landings from the airport.

Landing at Paro Airport is so tough that even pilots who’ve undergone the strenuous training process can only attempt it in near-perfect perfect conditions. They’re not allowed to land at night, in poor visibility, or if there’s turbulence.

Drukair (Royal Bhutan Airlines) & Bhutan Airlines are the national carriers of Bhutan and are the only airlines that service Bhutan. They operate from Paro to eight cities in five countries.

Back in 2011, Business Insider reported that only 8 pilots were qualified to fly planes into Paro. Their ranks are reportedly up to about 24 (give or take) now.

Interested in more info or video about Paro? Check this out:

Feature Image (cropped): Ralf Roletschek / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 2.0

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Rob Vance August 31, 2023 - 2:34 pm

Don’t you forget Saba (TNCS)? For which only a small number of pilots are licensed to land

gilby August 31, 2023 - 6:59 pm

Isn’t Queenstown NZ harder to land at than Welly?

Ronaldo Oberto September 2, 2023 - 3:58 am

How about FNC Madeira?

Michael Boyer September 4, 2023 - 3:39 pm

Try TELLIRIDE when the wind ìs blowing

Ken Elkins September 4, 2023 - 4:43 pm

Reno’s elevation is only 200 feet higher than Salt Lake City’s. Both have desert climates and similarly very warm to hot summers. SLC is so difficult that Delta operates a hub there.


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