This article was first published on July 21st, 2015, and we have brought it back to your attention for our Giz UK Transport Week. Enjoy!
When it comes to air travel it is easy to get frustrated. Missing baggage, delayed flights and being trapped in a metal tube while children scream is never a pleasant experience. But look a little harder and you’ll realise that airports are incredible places.
Yes, I mean airports. Not just aeroplanes, which are indeed miracles of engineering, but airports themselves. They are monuments to humankind’s ability to work together to achieve astonishing things. How do you filter thousands of people every day from the ground into the right metal tubes? Airports are designed to manage this symphony of people movement, to ensure that the right people and their bags reach the right places, en masse.
Consider the international dimension too: we’ve managed to standardise processes to such an extent that we know that when we take off in one country in a Boeing 747, there will not only be somewhere to land it at the other end, but that it will be possible to refuel with the correct type of fuel and unload baggage with compatible machinery.
Air travel, as a manifestation of human ingenuity, is incredible. Perhaps we should be weirdly proud that we’re so good at it that somehow we’ve managed to make air travel seem boring.
But this doesn’t mean that all airports around the world are as dull as Luton. In fact, airports are like cockroaches and exist in some surprisingly extreme conditions – and some are pretty damn weird.
Perhaps the most famous scary airport approach was to be found at Kai Tek Airport in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is only 1,104 square kilometres across (about two thirds that of London) and is home to seven million people. As a result, pilots had to be skilled enough to navigate their way into land between a number of high rises. It certainly wasn’t a landing for the faint hearted.
However, the airport closed in 1998 and has since been replaced by the straightforwardly named Hong Kong International Airport. To make room for it, the authorities literally built an island out in the middle of the sea, and several massive bridges to connect it to the rest of Hong Kong.
Kai Tek is far from the only hair-raising airport though. Congonhas Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil is only five miles from the centre of the city, resulting in similar (but perhaps not quite as severe) navigation challenges.
Oh, and there’s one other city with an extremely urban airport which causes headaches. You might have heard of it. It is called London City Airport. That’s right, the small airport designed for rich business people in London’s Docklands has caused planners headaches since it was first built.
Image Credit: Dessault Falcon.
It must have seemed like a good idea in the 1980s as the Docklands was essentially miles of derelict buildings, but since then skyscrapers have shot up providing new obstacles for pilots. As a result, the airport (which can only accommodate “regional” sized jets) requires take-offs and landings take place at five degrees, rather than the regulation three degrees. This might not sound like much, but is considerably steeper by European standards.
Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Nepal, named after the first people to successfully climb Everest, is close to the base camp of the world’s highest peak, and is widely regarded as the most dangerous airport in the world. The reason for this is two-fold: firstly, it is subject to high winds, cloud cover and rain (it is one of the highest up airports in the world at 2,845m above sea level).
Secondly, and crucially, due to its high-up perch in the mountains there is limited space, meaning there is no possibility for planes to do what pilots call a “go around”, or an aborted landing. Apparently at the northern end of the runway there is some immediately high terrain, and at the southern end a steep drop. Yikes.
Princess Juliana International Airport on Saint Martin has the opposite problem. The tiny Caribbean island’s airport is basically at sea level and requires approaching planes to approach the runway at very low altitude. This must be especially weird for people on the beach by the airport, as planes fly overhead disturbingly close to the ground, so much so that signage around the beach warns tourists about blasts of air from jet engines.
So the airports above might have weird runways, but at least the runway will always be there when the plane arrives. This isn’t always the case in some places.
Barra Airport in the Outer Hebrides is apparently the only airport in the world where a beach is used as the runway, and therefore is liable to disappear when the tide comes in. Don’t expect to be seeing any A380s landing here any time soon.
It isn’t, however, the only airport that uses sand. The Burning Man music festival is held every year in the Nevada desert, and is basically in the middle of nowhere. But don’t worry if you can’t face a long drive, as you can always fly in instead. For the week of the festival, Black Rock City airport comes into action, and during the festival a stretch of desert turns into a parking area for small aircraft.
The airport has an official designation (88NV) and during the festival there’s even a specially constructed pavilion to provide services to planes, as well as a pilot’s lounge. Then after the festival, the airport is packed away for another year.
According to Jalopnik, landing can be tricky:
You have to be a really good pilot. Taking off isn’t as scary as landing—when you land in the desert, it’s usually super bumpy and there’s a lot of turbulence. Some planes have even flipped on landing because the bounces are so heavy!
And then there’s landing at the Poles. The Arctic’s main “airport” is Camp Barneo, which is operated by the Russian Geographical Society and every year reconstructs a runway close the North Pole. The 1,200m airstrip is apparently capable of landing an Antonov An-74.
At the South Pole, there are a number of different runways. These include the literally named Ice Runway, which is found close to the United States’ McMurdo observation station. It is capable of landing a number of military aircraft; apparently in 2009 they even managed to land a modified Boeing 757 passenger jet there.
Get Out Of The Way!
The big debate in Britain at the moment is over what to do about the proposed third runway at Heathrow Airport. The problem is that despite the supposed economic benefits, it would involve bulldozing a number of settlements and villages around the periphery of the existing airport.
However, perhaps there is a solution: why can’t the two co-exist peacefully? I mean, aside from all of the obvious practical reasons, there are already some fun examples of airports doing just that.
In Gibraltar, Britain’s stubborn outpost on the Mediterranean, land is at such a premium that the airport is built right up to the border with Spain. In fact, the road-crossing to Spain goes across the runway. This means that when a plane wants to land or take off, the road has to be closed off.
At Gisborne Airport in New Zealand, there is a train line running right across the runway. At Don Mueang International Airport in Thailand, someone thought it was a good idea to build a golf course right in between the two runways.
So we’ve seen some pretty weird airports – but what is the weirdest? One candidate could be the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, which is a prison that has a built in airport, serving as the hub of the prison transport system, which is unsurprisingly popularly known as Con Air.
Perhaps the weirdest airport out there is Jumbolair in southern Florida. This is an “aviation community” for rich people with private planes. In other words, rich people have their mansions, with private planes parked up outside. From there they can taxi straight onto the runway and take off. It is probably the only community of rich people in the world who won’t complain about being stuck under the flight path.
If this isn’t the dictionary definition of “decadence”, I’m not sure what is. Watch this astonishing old video to see what I mean:
And if you’re wondering what sort of people live there, then the answer is, umm, John Travolta. The actor doesn’t just own any little plane. He owns his own Boeing 707. Seriously.
Have we missed any particularly weird airports? Let us know in the comments!