Some are placed precariously while others, if seen from a distance, may appear to be anything but a landing strip for aircraft. While airports around the world are meant to serve people visiting those destinations, these airports are in themselves no less than any tourist ‘must-visit’ site. We check out some of the most interesting landing strips that you can see while travelling around the globe. Or, better still, travel precisely just to experience these!
Barra Airport, Scotland
Headed for the beach? Well, not really, if your destination is Scotland. But if you are visiting the Barra Isles, a beach is where you start your trip. Home to a varied range of flora and fauna, the Outer Hebrides — a chain of islands off the west coast of mainland Scotland — is renowned among travellers for its beauty. And their plane literally lands on the wide shallow bay of Traigh Mhòr (meaning ‘Big Beach’) at the north tip of the Barra Isles. Opened in 1936, this is the only airport in the world that uses a beach as its landing strip!
Gibraltar International Airport, Gibraltar
Ranked as one of the most extreme airports in the world, this main airfield of the British overseas territory has a busy highway cutting through its runway, which is under the control of the Ministry of Defence but is used for civilian air traffic, too. Every time a flight comes in for landing, the road traffic on the busy Winston Churchill Avenue needs to be halted. For drivers on this road, safety is not looking around, but looking up!
Rail route airport:
Gisborne Airport, New Zealand
Level crossings for rail-road intersections in India are common, but this one in the North Island of Kiwi-land pushes it a bit too far. The Palmerston North-Gisborne Line railway route crosses right through the main runway. And mind you, this is a proper public airport. We aren’t really sure which time-table the authorities refer to for managing the airport — the train timings or the flight schedule?
Airport on ice:
Ice runway, Antarctica
This is a lifeline for researchers — and tourists — to Antarctica. This strip called the ‘blue ice’ runway is capable of handling wheeled aircraft. Every year, the sea-ice runway is constructed at the start of each season and is used until early December when the sea ice begins to break up. Pilots usually look for the darker strip dotted with lights or white marks — just imagine the thrill of steadying the craft on a hard patch of bluish ice amidst a sea of white.
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba, Caribbean
You can only fly in aboard a 16-seater Twin Otter or BN2 Islander for this journey — that’s because you are about to land on possibly the shortest air strip in the world. This airport, at the tip of Saba, a Caribbean island and the smallest municipality governed by the Netherlands, has just 400m at its disposal. So, it needs real skill from pilots to negotiate the cliff and get a smooth touchdown next to the open sea. The take-off, too, is an experience never to be forgotten – a short burst of speed and then a quick vertical climb… and you are left with blue sky above and a blue ocean below.
Artificial island airport:
Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Japan
Not much of an adventure involved in landing here, but the thrill is that your airport is built on an artificial island and is visible from the moon! Designed by Italian designer Renzo Piano, this artificial island was created despite the high risk of earthquake and storms. In fact, the island was built for the airport itself. Connected to the mainland by only one Sky Road, it is a visible feature on the ocean front as you approach from above.
Agatti Aerodrome, Lakshadweep, India
“Seriously, that’s an airport?” – That is precisely what you think when the captain announces landing. Looking like nothing more than just a strip of land protruding out of the heavenly blue waters, it is actually the Agatti Airport in Lakshadweep. Designed for Dornier 228-type airplanes, this is the only one serving the Lakshadweep islands. The Airports Authority of India had supposedly planned to extend the runway to the nearby island of Kalpati, so that an Airbus 320 or Boeing aircraft could be accommodated, but the plan was later scrapped as it would have infringed upon a turtle nesting territory.
Best engineered airport:
Madeira Airport, Santa Cruz, Portugal
If you are looking to savour some fine Madeira wine and witness the largest fireworks show on a New Year’s Eve, you have to land on this very interesting airstrip. The airport has been a success story since it started in 1964 with a 1,600m runway, until the TAP Portugal Flight 425 incident took place in 1977. The regular flight from Brussels overran the runway and crashed onto the beach, killing 131 of its 164 passengers. There was no more land to extend the strip, but engineers came up with something unique. A hundred and eighty columns of about 70m (230ft) each were erected — some of them on the ocean itself — and the runway was stretched by 847m. Due to the terrain, it is considered one of the most amazing feats of airport engineering.
Plane above your head:
Princess Juliana International Airport, Saint Martin, Caribbean
Voted as the No. 1 ‘Stunning Airport Approaches’ by numerous agencies, this landing strip on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, a Dutch territory, stands right next to Maho Beach. Each plane about to land here appears close enough to touch from the beach-goers’ perspective. In fact, revellers on this island spend their day at Maho beach precisely for this thrilling experience of large airplanes darting towards them from across the sea and then landing just behind them!
High-altitude air strip:
Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla, Nepal
Also known as the Lukla Airport, this one is placed at an altitude of 2804m (9,200ft) and is hailed as arguably the most dangerous airport in the world. Often used by Mt Everest climbers — Laklu is where they start the trek for Everest Base Camp — this 460m runway is capable of hosting only small fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. There are daily flights to Lukla from Kathmandu, but negotiating high winds, clouds and poor visibility makes it challenge for pilots. The southern end of the runway drops steeply, and abruptly, into a valley below — therefore, the margin of error is very narrow while landing. It must be a great way to test the people on board, to see if they have what it takes to be in the Everest valley before actually setting foot on it.