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THESE DAYS, most commercial aircraft landings are thankfully bereft of drama. A long, straight, and gentle descent. Even St. Thomas’s relatively short 7000-ft. runway comes after a gradual straight-as-an-arrow approach that begins 50 miles to the west in Puerto Rico.
However, I can name three dramatic exceptions to this: Hong Kong’s original HKG, Kai Tak (no longer active); Madeira’s FNC, Funchal; and a seaplane approach to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I’ve experienced two of these firsthand, Madeira and San Juan; the third, only in the virtual world of Microsoft Flight Simulator. (Indeed, I’ve “piloted” all three in the sim.)
There’s a commonality of all three approaches: a sharp turn, then set ‘er down—quickly. Here are tidbits on each one.
Hong Kong Kai Tak. Kai Tak’s runway 13/31 jutted out from the airport’s terminal area on a peninsula for 11,122 ft., sufficiently long to accommodate Boeing 747s once a scary approach was carried out. Active from 1926 to 1998, Kai Tak was considered the sixth most dangerous airport in the world. It is now replaced by Chek Lop Kok, a 19-mile drive from Hong Kong.
The approach using runway 13 was world-famous: It began with a descent over Victoria Harbour and the densely populated Western Kowloon, all the while headed straight for Checkerboard Hill, an orange-and-white reference point.
Then, at precisely the correct moment, the pilot made a 47-degree right turn to line up with runway 13. Typically, this maneuver was begun at an altitude of about 650 ft. and completed at 140 ft. with touchdown only a short distance ahead.
Prevailing conditions at Kai Tak made runway 13 the only acceptable choice. However, the approach was complicated by Hong Kong’s hills that could make crosswinds variable in direction and strength.
I never visited Hong Kong during my traveling days. However, wonderful 9Dragons add-on scenery for Microsoft Flight Simulator gives me opportunity to fly Kai Tak’s runway 13 approach complete with the Checkerboard’s initial target. I can do it reliably—virtually, of course—in my Miles M.57 Aerovan. But I’m sure glad for the Reset button with wide-body jets.
Madeira Funchal. Madeira is part of an archipelago located in the Atlantic 600 miles southwest of Portugal, of which it is an autonomous region. I first learned of Madeira from the English satirical duo Flanders & Swann’s “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear” and also visited there later.
Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International, aka Funchal, is the island’s airport (Madeira’s Cristiano Ronaldo is a football star). Prior to flying there, I researched its approach (third most dangerous in the world, some say) and practiced it on my sim. Old pro that I was, I knew what to expect when I got there.
The runway, aligned 05/23, hugs the coastline with a steep mountain on one side and the Atlantic on the other. Opened in 1964, Funchal’s 5249-ft. length accommodated a Lockheed Constellation, a four-engine prop flagship of TAP Air Portugal and other airlines of the era. In 1986, runway length was extended to 5905 ft., then in 2000 to today’s 9124 ft.
This last extension was built on a platform, partly over the sea, supported by 180 columns, each 230 ft. tall. In 2004, the airport received the Outstanding Structure Award bestowed by the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering.
Prevailing winds dictate landing in the 05 direction, which, because of mountainous topography, requires a variation of the Kai Tak sharp right and set ‘er down. Typically, aircraft approach offshore in the 23 direction, then hang a right that heads toward the mountain, then another right to final, following navigational aids mounted halfway up the mountainside.
Piece of (Madeira) cake, once you’ve used the Reset often enough with Pedro Oliveira’s fine add-on scenery on the sim.
San Juan seaplane. Back when I lived on St. Thomas, a trip over to San Juan was a great way to experience traffic lights, a bustling city, and keeping to the right, just like stateside. One option to get to San Juan was Antilles Air Boats.
In my mind’s eye, the Grumman Goose descended west across the water toward a bunch of high rise buildings, then pulled a steeply banked Uie into the prevailing trade winds to set down in the bay.
The St. Thomas approach may not have been as spectacular, but it was no less pleasurable. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018
“Madeira is part of an archipelago located in the Atlantic 600 miles southeast of Portugal” Interesting! Until now I was unaware of any islands in Morocco or Algeria. ;-). I’ve never been in a flying boat. Looks really cool.
Agg! SouthWEST! Will change before travelers miss the landing Big Time.
Oh Nevermind…you are so prolific on so many subjects, endless curiosity which fuels illumination day after day, thank you, it is much appreciated, cheers, gordon
Thanks for your kind words. But, geez, I wouldn’t want anyone to ask for a glass of Madeira in the Morocco highlands. A scandal, that.
During my (too) eventful career flying for Uncle I had the opportunity to fly into Toncontin Airport, Tegucigalpa, Honduras. If you were on the glide slope you were very close to passing trucks. You couldn’t fly much higher, as it has a short runway. That place should make your list.
Agreed. It’s on several of the “World’s Most Dangerous Airports” lists. So is another I’ve experienced, St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana, where jets generate serious sand blast on a nearby populated beach. Alas, a tourist died from it last year.
I don’t have fond memories of flying into Aspen’s airport in the Rockies where prevailing winds and gusts make it all white knuckle country for everyone, including the crews. It’s definitely “get it down” and after a particularly firm landing a flight attendant announced, “Well we’ve definitely landed in Aspen…” That’s one and another less than joyous recollection is circling to land in Bilbao, looking out the window while the plane banked substantially and looking directly at a cross atop a church spire. Locals aboard kept crossing themselves until we set down.
The old Edmonton Municipal Airport used to be a fun place to land. No turns, but relatively short runways (5700 and 5870 ft.), and surrounded by city, with two hospitals on the approach paths, a major rail yard just north of the airport and a sea of downtown high-rises not too far to the south. I used to live under one of the flight paths, on the 7th. floor of a 12 storey high-rise, and it would almost look like they were rolling the wheels over the roof as they flew over (not really, but they sure looked close).
On the other approach the jets (737s were the largest that they allowed in) would fly beside the taller downtown office towers (at a reasonable distance but still you could look across to the towers on the approach). There actually was one incident where a small plane crashed onto the roof of one of the hospitals causing a mass evacuation due to ruptured gas lines in a mechanical penthouse.
The landing technique was to kick the throttles back in on the final approach just in case they had to abort the landing as there was no run off room at the ends of the runways, and then once down heavy reverse thrust. On at least one occasion when flying in we had some fellow passengers who were returning flight crew and you could see the pilot of that crew tense up on the final approach because he knew just how tough the landing was.
For a few short years it was the venue for the Edmonton Indy race, but the City finally decided to close the airport and redevelop the lands. With that closure, height restrictions on downtown towers came off (it used to be a maximum of 30 storeys depending on where the tower was located), and already there are 43, 47, 54 and 67 floor towers under construction and an announced 80 storey tower with construction to start later this year.
http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Edmonton_City_Centre_(Blatchford_Field)_Airport provides information on the rich history of this little airport.
I’d nominate DCA for an honorable mention, especially the eastbound approach following the Potomac River (surrounded by restricted airspace of the highest caliber). Was on a shuttle from O’Hare that must have had a new driver – still pulling a sharp turn lining up while over the end of the runway, banged one side hard, then went around. In rush hour. Rerun about 45 min. later greased it in (the old guy?), got off the runway, and most of the way to the ramp when there was a bang and we settled on the side that had hit hard the first time with audible tire flop. Then had to sit another 1/2 hour waiting for a gate to open up since ours had a new occupant (did I mention it was rush hour?). Eventually flop-flopped over to another airline’s gate and got off. On the return flight several days later, they loaded everybody up, then jacked up the plane and replaced some tires. DCA must be hard on the aircraft.
I’ve tried that approach in FS. Have never been successful without getting too close to something restricted along the way.
Lukla, Nepal. Another where the approach can have you on the edge of your seat. I flew into there couple of years ago and the locals were clutching the seat ahead with closed eyes. The landing in a Dornier was hard, the braking was harsh!