I remember my Gran giving me a small red plastic suitcase full of toys for my first long haul flight from Heathrow to Los Angeles, aged five, collecting cups and glasses with a trolley on a flight from there to Hawaii a couple of years later, and seeing Afghanistan flicker in the darkness on the way from Moscow to Delhi in 1987. 

Flying regularly from then on, I've flown 127 airlines, many now long gone, and others transformed almost beyond recognition. I've been lucky enough to be on the first flight of the Boeing 787 from Tokyo to Hong Kong, and to experience glorious business class service and food on Etihad, BA, Qatar Airways, Ethiopian and others.

And no matter which airline, wherever I'm flying to, or in which cabin, I look forward to the next flight...


 
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SCARY RUNWAYS
A runway the length of an aircraft carrier surrounded by cliffs, and seven other white-knuckle airports...
posted by Richard Green on 26/08/2018

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


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  • "The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth"
    Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French writer, poet and aviator