Where are the trickiest places to land? Should we be wary of certain airports?

Maybe you’ve seen those “world’s scariest landings” and “world’s most dangerous airports” lists that pop up time to time on the Web and elsewhere?  Take them with a grain of salt, because no commercial airport is unsafe.  If one were, no airline would be flying there.  Pilots speak of certain airports as challenging, which is a wholly different thing. As in any profession, some tasks — in this case some takeoffs and landings — are more difficult and work-intensive than others, but they remain well within the capabilities of the people trained to perform them.

What makes an airport challenging is usually one of two things, either alone or in combination: runway length and surrounding terrain. Many Andean, Himalayan, or Rocky Mountain airports feature complicated arrival and departure patterns due to nearby peaks. New York’s La Guardia, Chicago’s Midway, and Sao Paulo’s Congohnas airports are among those known for their stubby runways.

Those complicated patterns might be work-intensive, but that doesn’t make them scary.  Likewise for short runways.  As we saw a few questions ago, a runway must always be long enough to ensure a safe takeoff. Landings work much the same way; a pilot does not eyeball the runway and conclude “that looks about right,” then hit the brakes and hope for the best. Taking weight and weather into account — including penalties for a surface slickened by ice, snow, or rain — data must show that a plane can stop within a maximum of 85 percent of the total available distance.  Takeoffs and landings are more scientific than people realize. We hear a lot about pilots needing to possess expert judgment and seat-of-the-pants skill.  While maybe that’s true, there is almost nothing subjective about choosing where to land or take off from.

It goes without saying, though, that shorter runways leave limited margin for error, and history records numerous overrun accidents, some of them fatal. During severe weather things can get squirrelly. Low visibility, gusty crosswinds and slippery surfaces can combine to throw an approach off kilter. The best way — indeed the right way — of dealing with an unstable approach is to discontinue it.


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