A runway the length of an aircraft carrier surrounded by cliffs, and seven other white-knuckle airports...
posted by Richard Green on 08/02/2019

Saba island and its runway, built on the only flat area

Looking out of the airplane's window, my vertigo lunges at me. Instinctively, I grab the armrest furthest from window and the 60m sheer drop, and strain against the seat belt. Far below, ferocious waves smash onto jagged rocks: I feel about to plummet.

We haven't even taken off yet.

I'm scared because this is no ordinary airport. It's on the tiny island of Saba in the Dutch Antilles, which has the shortest and most stupidly located runway in the world. It is grafted onto the side of a dormant volcano, with 60m cliffs on three sides, and just 400m feet of tarmac.

That's not much longer than the deck of the USS Nimitz. And the Nimitz has wires, nets, and foam, to help a plane stop, and a catapult to aid take off's too. Here the only thing on the runway is a house-sized letter 'X' painted at each end.

No catapult required; A Winair Twin Otter taking off from Saba. Photo My Bathroom Wall

The pilot flew past the runway on my flight over here - to see the way the windsock was blowing. I asked him what the 'X' was. "It means the airport is closed to commercial traffic fella. The runway is way too short". He saw my expression come over all "so why the hell are we pointed at it then?" "Noting to worry about" he added with a smile, "we get exemption permits to come in, only after special training though".

The landing was terrifying all right, like a theme park ride gone wrong, but now the pilot was pivoting the plane for take-off - the wheel six feet from the edge to make every foot of tarmac count. This was worse. We turn for take off, and I looking down the runway to take my mind off the drop. It didn't help. I've seen check-in queues at Heathrow that were longer.

And I know a thing or two about planes. I wish I didn't. I know that the Winair propeller plane I'm now locked inside is a De Havilland Twin Otter. I know they went into production in 1961. And I know that all planes need roughly twice the length of runway to take off as they do to land.

There's a roar and the air tenses. The pilot applies full brakes and full power - the poor man's Nimitz catapult - and we lurch forward. The man next to me crosses himself. We are trundling. I don't want to be trundling. I want to rocket, whiz, or to whoosh at the very least.

Saba's titchy airport with sheers drops behind the runway. Photo My Bathroom Wall

I shove my feet hard into the floor, trying to back-pedal. It doesn't work. The giant 'X' passes underneath and we are still on the ground. Then there is no ground. The ground ran out. There's just a cliff, a drop, and lots of rocks, but somehow, stupendously, we fly.

It's hard to credit, but there hasn't been a single major incident here, and after the 12-minute flight back to St Maarten, I feel more confident about flying, rather than less. If these guys can serve such a ridiculous airport year-round and keep coming home safely, then I guess landing at a real airport with an averaged length of around 3,000m runway must be a piece of cake.

Winair is the only airline operating into Saba, which runs flights there from St Maarten. For more information on the iland, see the Saba Tourism Bureau

The scariest of the rest. Here are nine more abnormal airports, which might terrify you, or might make you more sanguine about flying: or maybe both.

Gibraltar International Airport

The main road into Gibraltar crosses the airport runway

Gibraltar has a pretty awkward runway too, and is a lot less niche than Saba - in fact it accommodates 200-seater jets several times a day. It's book ended by the Mediterranean Sea at either end and is snug alongside the sheer face of the eponymous 426m-high rock. Land here on a bad day and the swirling currents cause the plane to lurch like a Wurlitzer just before landing.

I used to work for GB Airways - a Gibraltar-based airline that was eventually bought out by Easyjet - and flew in semi-regularly. One dark and stormy night when, the first attempt to land was accompanied by some horrendous jolts, and although the second try felt worse, the pilot did manage to plant the thing hard onto the runway. Faces were blanched, stomachs rearranged, and there was considerable screaming. I needed a drink, the pilot needed a medal and three American tourists needed train tickets back to London - they told us they would never fly again - and maybe they didn't.

The shiny new airport terminal is 400m from the city centre and actually is the border between the UK and Spain. Fly to Gibraltar from Bristol, Birmingham, Casablanca, Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, Manchester and Tangier. See Gibraltar Airport

Madeira Airport

Madeira airport's runway is raised on concrete pylons

Here the runway is hemmed in between mountains and the Atlantic Ocean and was uncomfortably short. It's length is no longer a worry, as over the years it has been extended; most recently in 2000. However, because of its pinched location, the only option was to construct the new runway over a strange looking elevated section that uses 180, 210 feet high pylons. It may look spectacular, but at least now pilots don't need to worry especially about the runway's length.

What they still do need to be aware of though is the infamous buffeting that can take place as the aircraft passes a gap in the mountains. So on the way into land here, captains first aim straight for a disused banana warehouse on the side of a mountain. It sounds crazy, but I was told this while sitting behind a GB Airways pilot (on the jump seat) when I last flew there. Next comes a steep right turn, after which the plane passes that crease in the mountains. If the wind is blowing strongly, as it often does and was doing on that day too, stand by for a horrid sideways lurch.

Madeira is served by dozens of European airlines from many cities, and is especially busy in the summer months. See Madeira Airport

Courchevel Altiport, France

Courcheval Altiport's far from flat runway

The runway at the so-called Courcheval Altiport looks like it could slide down the mountainside at any moment. At just 1,722ft in length, It's short too, but most alarming is the 18.5% angle of slope. Landings are scary enough I would imagine, but reckon that take offs are worse.

As a break in the snowboarding, I spent an alcohol-fuelled afternoon at the adjacent restaurant here. It was impossible not to watch each light aircraft taxi onto the flat top section of the runway, and then rev the engines with the brakes on ready for the dash down the hill. Each and every time it looked perilously close to the cliff-edge end of the runway by the time the plane lifted into the air.

Pierce Brosnan uses the airport in the opening seen of Tomorrow Never Dies, as does Roman Abramovich most winters apparently. There aren't any scheduled flights, so it's unlikely you'll visit, unless of course you have buckets of cash. But if you happen to be skiing on the nearby slopes then the Pilatus Restaurant has good food and great views.

Princess Juliana International Airport, Saint Maarten

Aircraft skimming low over the beach prior to landing at St Maarten

This busy airport is famous for its short runway (7,152 ft), big jets, and a beach that is right by the perimeter fence. Crowds gather on tiny Maho beach to watch the big Air France and KLM planes lumber over their heads, and there is even a small beach shack bar that enters into the spirit by playing the air traffic control radio and serving themed cocktails. There's no need for Photoshop forgery here.

Situation update: On Wednesday the 6th of September 2017, the island of Sint Maarten took a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. Aerial photographs since the storm show the airport is all but destroyed, and the famous Maho Beach end of the runway has been dumped on by tons of sand. The once sandy beach that lay to the right of the below photo appears now to be just rocks, and the beach bar where tourists formerly gathered, seems to have vanished too.

The rest of the island has been terribly damaged by Irma of course, and it would seem likely that the long term clean-up and rebuilding operation will have the restoration of the world's most famous plane spotting beach low down a list of priorities, if indeed it is recreated at all. 

Perhaps the authorities will use the devastation as an opportunity to rebuild the end of the runway in such a way as to prevent tourists standing on the former beach close behind the engines of aircraft about to take off. Tourist numbers have grown over recent years, drawn by press coverage of the aircraft coming in low over the beach, and a tourist was killed on Maho in July 2017, after being knocked over by the powerful jet blast. 

Barra Airport, Scotland

Barra Airport's terminal overlooks the beach runway

Fear factor: this is the only beach runway in the world, with no tarmac, no landing lights (except helpful locals who leave their lights on in the car park), and it's washed clean at high tide. There's a flashing light in the control tower that warns local cockle pickers about an incoming flight, and a sign for pedestrians saying "Keep off the beach when the windsock is flying", so that's ok then.

Fly there from Glasgow with Flybe. See Barra Airport

Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Nepal

The steep-angled runway and cliff-edge ending of Tenzing-Hilary Airport

There's a Himalayan mountain on one end, a 3,000ft drop at the other, and it's little runway is 9,500 feet above sea level. It's a famously hair-raising final approach, with swirling mountain air currents and a rakishly positioned patch of tarmac for pilots to aim for. The airport was renamed in honour of Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay in 2008, in honour of their ascent of nearby Mount Everest in 1953. This airport is still the place where climber arrive on their way to Everest Base Camp.

St Barts airport, French Caribbean

St Barts airport has a precarious angled approach over a road and down a steep hill

I flew into St Barts on my way to Saba, and passed over this road in the same type of plane as this, at pretty much the same angle, gripping onto the armrest at the angled and short smudge of tarmac runway ahead of me. The problem here is that the runway is hemmed in by the sea at one end and a hill with a road passing along the top of it at the other. I landed there on a sunny summer's day, but I dread to think what it is like in bad weather. Incidentally, although most people know it as St Barts Airport, it's proper name is Gustaff II Airport. It is now a French Caribbean territory, but was purchased from Sweden in 1878, who acquired it from the French almost a hundred years earlier.

Fly there from Antigua, Saint Maarten or Saint Martin with St Barth Commuter or Winair

Deicing demystified; it's expensive, time-consuming and critical for a safe flight...
posted by Richard Green on 05/02/2019

Deicing in Detroit. Photo Ian Headley/Flickr

With temperatures plunging below zero and snow falling across Western Europe right now, airport deicing procedures are in full swing.

On a trivial level that means that the odd unsuspecting passengers is being spooked by the sight of blokes in hazmat gear firing coloured liquid alll over their aircraft like a decontamination scene from a disaster movie. Deicing also causes delays due to the extra time needed to spray the aircraft, and it's vital too - as many crashes have been caused by a build up of ice on critical areas of plane's exterior.

Why is deicing so important? The areas of an aircraft that need to be ice free before a flight are the wings, and the horizontal and vertical stabilisers. Ice on these surfaces adds weight, but more importantly it can hinder the free movement of flaps and ailerons, and disrupt the smooth airflow over the outside of the plane, and thereby reduce lift.

That means an aircraft will need more runway length or more speed to get airborne if it has ice on its surfaces. Clearly this can be a cause of disasters.

Deicing close-up. Photo Peter Gronemann/Flickr

How is it done? Sometimes deicing takes place at the gate just prior to the aircraft pushing back in order to taxi to the runway. Though it's increasingly likely that the plane will taxi to a dedicated deicing pad first. This allows the gate to be kept clear for incoming aircraft, clear of slippery residue fluid on the tarmac, and probably collected in special underground tanks to be recycled.

Incidentally the pilot and the deicing crew can speak with each other on a special radio frequency during the procedure.

It doesn't need to be snowing for deicing to be necessary. Photo Clariant International Ltd

Deicing vehicles are specialist bits of kit with a fire-brigade like moveable arms mounted on them and with a bucket to accommodate a member of the deicing team. The process follows a pattern so that nowhere remains undrenched. Deicing fluid is artificially coloured so that the spraying crew can see where's been covered.

They avoid directly spraying the cockpit or passenger windows, the nose-mounted instrument sensors, the engines or the wheels.

What's in deicing fluid? Deicing fluid is a mix of propylene glycol and water, which is sprayed on hot and at high pressure. The most common fluid used is Type I and Type IV. Type I removes snow and ice and then Type IV is applied to offer protection against re-icing.

An American Airlines Boeing 757 being deiced. Photo Whit Andrews/Flickr

What does deicing cost? The pilot decides when a plane needs deicing. Even a small jetplane will need a few hundred gallons of deicing fluid. For larger aircraft - say the Airbus A380 for example - airlines will pay around £10,000 per deice. The kit used in deicing lies unused during the summer months, when staff undergo training. Munich airport for example, has 26 specialised deicing vehicles and at full tilt can deice 68 planes per hour.

Many airports use dedicated areas close to the end of the runway called deicing pads. It makes sense to do the spraying away from the gates so as to free space for incoming aircraft. Also the anti icing agent used has a relatively short 'holdover time' in which it remains effective, and deicing at a 'pad' close to the runway means that engines can be kept running and delays that ight cause a repeat deice can be minimised.

Perhaps surprisingly, the only UK airport with a deicing pad is Southend Airport in Essex, which launched its new area this winter.

What is Lieutenant Columbo's first name?
posted by Richard Green on 14/12/2018

Freeze frame Columbo flashing his badge and there's your answer, or is it?

In a series where the main character habitually refers to his spouse only as ‘my wife’ and who’s Basset Hound is called ‘dog’, it’s hardly surprising that Columbo was coy about his name too. 

He regularly name checks cousins and relatives, but he only ever introduces himself as ‘Lieutenant Columbo’. In ‘Undercover’ (Season 12, episode 3) he jokingly gives his first name as ‘Lieutenant’ to Major General Martin J Hollister, played by Eddie Albert.

As reticent as Morse: a similar ruse was employed by the popular British detective character of Inspector Morse, who was also shy when it came to his Christian name, and Morse himself – played by John Thaw – similarly joshed that his first name was ‘Inspector’. In fact the riddle was revealed by author Colin Dexter at the end of the 1996 Morse story - Death is Now My Neighbour - to be 'Endeavour'.

Frank Cannon (played by William Conrad) and Endeavour Morse (John Thaw)

Philip, surely not? Anyone who played Trivial Pursuit back in the 80s may remember that the answer to Columbo’s first name question was Philip. Philip? This alleged fact was the one deliberate mistake among the question cards, inserted by Fred L Worth who wrote a book called ‘The Trivia Encyclopaedia’. He used this false fact as a trap for would be plagiarists, much in the same way that map makers have done in the past by inserting fictitious lakes or lanes in remote places to catch out potential copy cats.

Worth found that around a third of the questions in the blockbusting game of Trivial Pursuit were pinched from his encyclopaedia - including the rogue Columbo question. He threatened to take the manufacturers to court, but the case never came to trial; the Trivial Pursuit people didn't deny that they had culled Worth's book, but they and the judge reasoned that facts cannot be copyrighted.   

The prank ran and ran though, and Peugeot claimed in an advert that 'Lt Philip Columbo' as the world's most famous Peugeot convertible driver, and the 1997 Cop Cookbook includes a recipe from Peter Falk for pumpkin lasagne and a reference to his TV character, Philip Columbo. 

Writer's block: the creators of Columbo were Richard Levinson and William Link, who said that he was never given a first name. However, there is on screen evidence at odds with this. Columbo flashes his L.A.P.D. badge several times over the course of Columbo's run on TV, first in the ‘Dead Weight’ episode (Season 1, Episode 3). The first name 'Frank' is clearly visible on this ID.

Columbo in his clapped out Peugeot 403

To be Frank: given that there were 69 episodes that didn’t mention or refer to his first name, it seems likely that this was put on the ID for expediency by a prop person. This was in the days when streaming and freeze frame buttons didn’t really exists – so it’s likely that nobody would have thought it a blunder.

It doesn’t seem an inspired or even likely name really, running as it did at the same time as ‘Cannon’ – a successful TV detective that ran from 1971-1976. The portly detective's first name was Frank. The role was played by William Conrad: and due respect to him for narrating The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

And also contemporary to the crumpled detective was an Italian bodybuilder and actor, Francu Columbo. It would seem a little strange to so strongly echo a famous bodybuilder of the day.

Francu Columbo (upside down) with Arnold Schwarzenegger and friends

One more thing...If it was an oversight/accident to use the name Frank, it had consequences if you happen to be watching the series in Cologne or Klagenfurt, as in the German language dubbed Columbo’s he is occasionally referred to as Frank by other police officers.

 © 2016-2019 Richard Green. All Rights Reserved. All digital assets shown on this website remain the copyright of their respective owners.
  • "You suddenly realise you're no longer in government when you get into the back of your car and it doesn't go anywhere"
    Malcolm Rifkind, British politician and ex minister