Joan Larsen’s Travel: Heartstopping! The World’s Most Extreme Runways

Posted on January 6, 2016


by Joan Larsen


For absolutely all of us who have flown to our destinations before the “post-2000” era, there was little written about dangerous runways. Do you remember articles listing them? I don’t think so.

If we had any worry in the long distant past, it might center on a plane crash in an unlikely location. When our children were small, parents travelling at all might consider taking separate planes. You know: “just in case”!

If the two parents were going to remote places where the territory was rugged and the planes were small (pretty often!!), my husband and I took off in two separate small planes to get there. Twice the unexpected happened. Both times, his little plane got to the destination. Mine did not. Scary!! And you are right – I have never forgotten those OMG moments that could have been my last.


Early in our flying lives – and heading for Antarctica, our plane was to land at the last town in the world at the tip of South America. At that time, their runway was dirt. We had not known that. But that was not the concern. We couldn’t land because a herd of cows was roaming the runway at will!! Turning back north over the Andes mountains, we landed at an even shorter landing strip safely. A bus was found to take us over the curvy, mountainous road through the high Andes to Argentina’s tip, making this an unexpected road trip of a lifetime. . . to be remembered forever.


In our world today, stories of the most dangerous airport runways seem to always draw readers. Rarely had I read or had any idea that we might be in for a rough landing when we were to arrive at the following destinations. Just as well.

Courcheval Airport, France

If you love winter and skiing as I do, this is a dream destination. However, in order to fly in and out of this airport, pilots need special training. And when you watch the YouTube, you will see why. The airstrip is only 1722 feet long with dips and a vertical drop at the end. What the passenger doesn’t know is there are heavy crosswinds along with all that snow, so this may be a lovely looking location for an airport –and yet so treacherous. Stunningly beautiful though – if that counts!



Ice Runway, Antarctica

At the very start of the summer season, the Ice Runway is the principal runway for the U.S. Antarctic program at their base at McMurdo. There is no tarmac. It is made completely of – you guessed it – ice. It is used for bringing passengers (mainly scientists and workers) in, along with a variety of cargo that will have to last for a year. The ice is stable then, but as in this photo below, the nearly 450,000 pound weight of the plane and cargo could cause it to sink just a tiny bit into the ice and snow as this one did. But that doesn’t happen all that often. (When planes can no longer land, all that beautiful white expanse has become “an icy playground” to those of us who have managed to reach this remote location by icebreaker!)

Photo: National Geographic / Getty

Photo: National Geographic / Getty

Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Nepal

You’re going on the renowned trek to Everest and excited about the days ahead. The first time you land, you might ask what you have gotten into. The high winds and extreme cloud cover that affect this airport can be – well, let’s just say it is terrifying. But on top of that, there is the two-thousand foot drop at the end of the runway. There have been several accidents at this airport with the most recent happening in 2010. I feel that luck will be with you though!


Madeira Airport, Portugal

The city of Madeira is beautiful and definitely worth seeing. However, even the most experienced pilots struggle with this airport. With the tricky landing that you will see in the YouTube, pilots have to aim the plane directly at the mountain peak, then made a sharp right at the eleventh hour to avoid crashing directly into the mountain. Scary!


11-runways-bhutanmapParo Airport, Bhutan

This almost unknown country happens to be one of the most serene and beautiful countries in our world. It seems so hidden to me. But a map will help to show where this mountainous country — with the most charming residents — actually is.

But this airport is like no other. Why? It is so dangerous that only eight pilots in the entire world are qualified enough to land here. Paro Airport in Bhutan is sandwiched between two 18,000-foot Himalayan mountains. It is one of the most dangerous places to land because planes must be maneuvered between mountains (!) while competing with strong cross winds and a short runway. Plus, due to visibility factors, pilots are only allowed to take off and land at this air strip in daylight hours. (Somehow, I could have guessed!)


I have always felt that when one travels to wonderful and exciting places that, of course, our adrenalin should be high. But somehow, most of us never realize that a great deal of that excitement might be in store for us even before we land!!

Bon voyage!



JoanAvatar2Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth.  But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again.  She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”