Scary Airports?

Here are photographs that someone has decided are the scariest airports on earth to land an airplane. I look at these pics and ask, what are the physics of these situations that make these airports more scary than they would be if they were surrounded by Kansas wheatfields? Answer: nothing. Every landing made on these runways is based on the physics that would be in play in Kansas. Get over it. Most of these scary airports are surrounded by water. For people who have never landed short of, or beyond the runway, why would you care about the water in front of or beyond the runway?

I like these pics of “scary” runways, but the premise is useless. Every one of these runways has a particular length, width, slope and surface and, at the moment of landing, a particular wind angle and gust component. The surroundings are laughingly irrelevant. This gets to the point that the random imaginings of the uninformed sometimes overwhelm the craft of people who know what they’re doing. A technical or unfamiliar situation, especially when freighted with potential danger, is rarely what the novice assumes it is. This is the curse of the onlookers imposing their uninformed fears on the everyday, reliable craft of others. While we all know that “war is too important to be left to the Generals”, it’s also true that the fears we carry around any activity or phenomenon deserve to be moderated by what the experts in those domains have learned to be determinative. So it is here: The conditions that surround a runway have nothing to do with the suitability of the runway.

But I gotta say I love that runway at the Courcheval ski area, memorialized in the James Bond thriller, Goldeneye:

The aviator in me wishes that, like Courcheval, every runway was downhill, and granted me 3 or 4,000 feet of altitude under its takeoff leg (right-to-left in this picture). As aviators like to say, there’s nothing more worthless than the altitude above you, the runway behind you, or the altitude you don’t have. So 3 or 4 thousand feet of altitude under the takeoff leg of a runway is a divine gift. As for landing (left-to-right here), every pilot likes an uphill runway in front of you on landing – saves a lot of wear and tear on the brakes – for the same reason that most exit ramps are uphill on Interstate Highways. Of course, it’s not such good news when you carry just a little too much speed and float just a little too long and find yourself driving straight into the side of a hill with a runway pasted on its side. No day is perfect.

Equipment near the Runway

I remember a sunny afternoon in the spring of 1968, when on final approach to land at Vung Tau field, Vietnam. The field is next to a terrific beach, where Americans and the Viet Cong both went for R&R, and both knew all of them were there. Everyone was OK with that: it’s one of the aspects of war that armchair warriors don’t get.

About a minute before landing that day, Vung Tau Tower advised:

“Homey 303, cleared to land Runway 36. Be advised, there is heavy equipment near the runway, in the ditch on the right side of the runway.”

Any aviator assumes he’s obligated to process every piece of information. Immediately. Correctly. Precisely. From that standpoint, information that cannot be acted on is distracting and vexing. This is especially true for junior officers. Like me, that day.

What the hell were we supposed to do with that factoid? I accessed my database of all the landings I’d ever made, seen or heard of, and I found no record of a landing that involved the ditches on the side of the runway. Well, what if something went horribly wrong on this particular landing, and we veered uncharacteristically off the runway and found ourselves bouncing down a grassy knoll at 80 knots toward a yellow earthmover? Which of our checklists were we supposed to consult at that moment? None. No checklist for that one, and no controls on the aircraft that could alter our fate. In other words, Why would the tower distract us at that moment with such a phenomenally useless piece of information?

My answer surely sounded cynical: “Roger, Vung Tau. As usual, we shall restrict our landing to the runway.”

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