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"It's Like Flying Out Of A Toilet Bowl": Pilots Are Sharing Airports They Think Are Difficult To Land In

"It's Like Flying Out Of A Toilet Bowl": Pilots Are Sharing Airports They Think Are Difficult To Land In

"Any deviation gets you into restricted airspace, and the consequences are embarrassing and newsworthy."


Audrey Engvalson

by Audrey Engvalson

BuzzFeed Staff

Recently, I came across a couple of Quora threads asking pilots what airports are most challenging to land at. The answers are so interesting! Here are 19 of the most frequently mentioned airports.

1. Telluride Airport, Colorado, USA

an aerial view of Telluride

Robert Alexander / Getty Images

"Telluride comes to mind. It’s a box canyon tilted 3 degrees with a huge sagging area in the middle of the runway."
Edward Van Spurgeon

2. Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla, Nepal

an airplane landing

Dlitch / Getty Images/iStockphoto

"THE most difficult airport to fly in and out of is the Tenzing-Hillary airport in Lukla, Nepal. On one end is a cliff; on the other is a mountain wall. On the way, you are flying between mountains, and there are often clouds." —Joe Balbona

3. Catalina Island Airport, California, USA

an aerial view of Catalina

Raquel Lonas / Getty Images

"I’ll add one more: Catalina Island Airport in the Sky, Catalina Island, California. While it’s not on the level of difficulty of some of the airports on this page, the airport definitely gets the respect of pilots who take off and land there. Situated atop a mountain on the island, its short runway, crosswinds, and often adverse conditions make any good single engine pilot think twice. The airport’s reputation is so well known that the gift shop sells a coffee mug with a big bite off the lip of it emblazoned with 'I survived a landing at Catalina Island Airport.'" —Brian Teeter

"I found both landing and taking off at the Catalina airport on Catalina Island both challenging and fun. The runway is atop a plateau, so your approach is over the water. While you are very high over the water, you are much lower relative to the airport runway. Then when you take off, the runway is humped in the middle. Sitting at the end of the runway, it looks like it ends a few hundred feet in front of you due to the bow, but as you accelerate, more and more runway appears as you get neat the top of the hump. You have to trust your chart for the runway length as it’s not visible from the end of the runway." —Bob Nix

4. Juneau Airport, Alaska, USA

aerial view of Juneau

John Elk / Getty Images

"For me, it was Juneau, Alaska. Low visibility, high winds, ocean, and mountains on all four sides all mixed into one. Prior to about 1980, the approach was just a few hundred feet above a mountain peak." —Jan Zumwalt

"Juneau, Alaska is pretty scary. There’s this big honkin’ mountain at the end of the runway. You land going one way and fly out going the other." —Rik Elswit

5. Innsbruck Airport, Austria

view of Innsbruck, Austria

Alex0208 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

"Innsbruck, Austria, is in a mountain valley. It isn’t serviced by very large aircraft, but it scares the buggery out of me." —Ben Archibald

6. Lake Tahoe Airport, California, USA

aerial view of Tahoe

Randy Miramontez / Getty Images/iStockphoto

"South Lake Tahoe Airport, California. If you’re attempting to land and have to make a missed approach or taking off heading south (view is to the south), you’ll obviously have to do some serious climbing to avoid running into the nearby mountains. I was the navigator on a C-141 that made a touch-and-go in just this direction, and the pilot was not anticipating the elevation increasing so rapidly, so I had to give him some very quick vectoring to make it out safely." —Leonard Carter

"Well, the Lake Tahoe Airport is pretty bad. I would never land there because there is a much safer airport not far away, which is called Douglas County Airport. Flying into Lake Tahoe is like flying into a toilet bowl. Flying out of Lake Tahoe is like flying out of a toilet bowl. However, there may be some pilots who like the challenge of difficult airports." —Douglas Noble

7. National Airport, Washington, DC, USA

an airplane parked at the airport

Dlitch / Getty Images/iStockphoto

"I’m always alert when we operate at DCA, National Airport in Washington, DC. The river visual approach isn’t particularly dangerous, but any deviation gets you into restricted airspace, and the consequences are embarrassing and newsworthy. I always pay a lot of attention there." —Randy Duncan

8. San Diego Airport, California, USA

aerial view of San Diego airport

Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

"It’s not the worst in the world by far. But Lindbergh Field, the international airport in San Diego in Southern California is one that will make sure that the pilots stay awake on final approach. We’ve got hills 200 feet high within a mile of both ends of the one and only runway with no possibility of aligning it any differently.

They keep talking about moving the airport to a different location. But the problem is that all of San Diego County (an area nearly four times the size of the state of Rhode Island) consists almost entirely of canyons between rolling hills surrounded by 7,000-foot-high mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean, Mexico, and the United States Marine Corps on the other sides." —Peter Kosen

"It’s probably San Diego. If [they] hadn’t put that STUPID parking garage just off the end of the runway...if you’re at the bottom of the glide slope, your landing gear will miss the top of the garage by 50 fucking feet. FIFTY FUCKING FEET." —Jim Thurber

9. Aspen Airport, Colorado, USA

the mountains in Aspen

Chris Council / Getty Images

"Aspen (ASE) airport. Everything about it is frustrating. The approach requires going out of your way, and if you miss the approach it takes a bit of time to re-position for another try." —Hachi Ko

10. Narita International Airport, Tokyo, Japan

aerial view of Narita

Kanzilyou / Getty Images/iStockphoto

"My least favorite is Narita’s New Tokyo International Airport. Not because of terrain, or runway lengths, but because of the frequent, dangerous, unstable 'wind events.' Winds of 50–80+ knots suddenly come out of nowhere, and they can wreak havoc with landing aircraft. Diverts to nearby airports happen often, because of dangerous wind conditions."

— Steve Bazer

11. Los Angeles International Airport, California, USA

aerial view of LAX

Extreme-photographer / Getty Images/iStockphoto

"Los Angeles International. It’s not a bad airport to land in, but you have so many restrictions and airspace overlaps that it is just stressful to land there. I’m just glad we have to be on a flight plan with instructions from ATC when we do have to land there." —Paul Myers

12. Akureyri Airport, Iceland

view of tarmac at airport in Iceland

Jirivondrous / Getty Images/iStockphoto

"Akureyri, Iceland. It’s located at sea level down in a fjord that curves, meaning in the days before GPS approaches, you had a choice of either a) flying an approach that stopped above the rim of the fjord, or b) receiving radar instructions throughout your descent to the airport.

Under actual instrument conditions, flying down through clouds trusting purely on controller guidance was always unnerving. Iceland has a sterling domestic safety record, so there never was any worry on that score. However, if you’d ever been there before in good weather and seen just how narrow portions of the approach path actually were, a few palpitations were forgivable." —Tom Farrie

13. Gibraltar Airport

the airport in Gibraltar

Imagebroker / Getty Images/imageBROKER RF

"Gibraltar. To stay out of Spanish airspace, you have to fly very tight around the rock. If the wind is blowing, it is incredibly turbulent... Scary." —Raymond St Steven

14. Burbank Airport, California, USA

aerial view of Burbank

Raquel Lonas / Getty Images

"Recently it’s Burbank because we land there at close to max landing weight sometimes and we have to go below the GS, hit the 1,000-foot mark, and lock up the brakes... It’s got mountains around it, lots of traffic, and many times they don’t clear us to land until a couple miles out, and I have to figure out what the tailwind is really quick."

— Kurt Kaalaas

15. Les Saintes Island, Guadalupe, French West Indies

aerial view of island

Iacob Madaci / Getty Images/iStockphoto

"Can you see the runway? It’s straight ahead, only at a 45-degree angle to the left between two cliffs! So the approach is along the side of a cliff higher than the plane... You realize that you’re too fast at the threshold of a very short (580-meter) runway that gently slopes all the way down to a beach… I can tell you that I left a few liters of sweat on this one, but I got my qualification! You always have a relatively strong headwind from the same direction, which helps keep the ground speed relatively low and stop the plane." —Roger Politis


16. John Wayne Airport, Santa Ana, California, USA

aerial view of Santa Ana

Steve Whiston - Fallen Log Photo / Getty Images




"John Wayne is the worst. You have to climb out steeply, then pull your power back, and almost level off, all the while staying in a very narrow departure corridor." —Deborah Rowe

17. Paro Airport, Bhutan

Paro Airport

Clicked By Avik Chakraborty / Getty Images




"Paro in Bhutan can accept twin engine jets, but only seven pilots in the world are certified to make the complex approach between the mountains." —Peter Rush

18. Yeager Airport, West Virginia, USA

aerial view of Yeager Airport

6381380 / Getty Images/iStockphoto




"Several pilots I know have told me that in the US, Yeager Airport, Charleston, West Virginia, is one of the hardest. It is a very short runway tucked away on a flattened mountain top. Having flown in as a passenger a number of times, this is the one where the pilots attempt to decelerate the fastest (faster than Midway is how it felt to me). The weather can also be a bit tricky here I would think as well." —Matt Swanson


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