The World’s Most Challenging Airports

The World’s Most Challenging Airports

In airports across the world more and more instrument approaches are being implemented. This is good news for both pilots and passengers as it makes some of the most challenging airports much safer. However, there are still many interesting airports around the globe, here we run through a few of the best ones to get into your pilot logbook.

Lukla, Nepal

This airport is the gateway to Mount Everest! If you ever want to go to the highest mountain in the world, there is a chance you will need to fly into this airport.

This airport is 10,000 ft above sea level, it has a gradient (steepness) of 11.7% and is only 500m long. To put this in to perspective, main commercial airports like Gatwick or Schiphol are around 6 times this length.

On top of all this, it’s in a valley surrounded by snow capped peaks, sits on the edge of a 3km drop and is bustling with light aircraft and helicopter traffic.

The story of the airport’s creation is unconventional. Mountaineering legend (and first confirmed climber to have reached the summit Everest) Sir Edmund Hillary originally planned to build the airfield on flat ground — but local farmers refused to part with their fertile land.

Undeterred, he bought a steep slope for around £600 and recruited villagers to cut the scrubs before getting them to stomp the ground until flat.

Despite the risks, Lukla is still in use today by many tourists as the main route to Everest.

Courchevel, France

The European Lukla; Courchevel sits at approximately 7000ft above seal level and has a runway length of 537m and a gradient of 18.5% (trumping Lukla’s steepness). This airport has many of the same challenges as Lukla and it takes a highly skilled pilot to land there.

Courchevel serves some of France’s ski resorts and connecting flights can be booked from some of Europe's big hub airports like Geneva, Zurich and Nice. Should you want to get this one in your log book, you’ll have to do some specialist training.


Our first commercial airport on the list, this is one you may have flown into with a major airline. This airfield is designated as a Captains-only landing due to its shorter runway (for a jet) and frequent strong winds. ‘The Rock’ to the west of the airfield often creates turbulent conditions that sometimes result in windshear - a change in wind speed or direction over a short distance. This can prove challenging on landing although now, thanks to advanced technologies, is no longer a serious hazard. Around 5% of approaches into Gibraltar have to be abandoned, it doesn’t sound high, but it’s a lot higher than most commercial airfields.

If this wasn’t enough, there is a major highway for road traffic that crosses the runway. Yes, really! It makes for a unique and disarming sight from the air. Gibraltar is a great destination to get in your log book - and don’t forget to get a picture with the iconic rock.

Innsbruck, Austria

Innsbruck is an Austrian airport used predominantly during the ski season. It has some of the best views around as you descend into the valley on the approach.

Because of the high terrain surrounding the airport, no commercial pilot can go here without special training from their airline. Unlike Gibraltar, which only requires the Captain to receive special training, First Officers must also receive special training in the simulator to be allowed to operate on an Innsbruck-bound flight. However, it’s still a Captains-only landing. Pilots qualified to fly into Innsbruck must be rigorously and regularly tested in the simulator.

As most airlines fly into Innsbruck in winter, it can be extremely cold meaning pilots must be aware of incorrect altitude readings and aircraft braking capability on the runway. Low-visibility is also a regular problem.

In Innsbruck, you must stick to published procedures, as the aircraft is in a valley, there is little room for error. Any pilots who are trained to fly to Innsbruck will need to cover the escape maneuvers should they have any engine issues whilst in the valley.

The valley also creates a challenging weather condition known as ‘Foehn Winds’. In simple terms, this is a change from a wet and cold atmosphere one side of a mountain, to warmer and drier atmosphere on the other side, which can make for turbulent conditions - noticeably more dramatic than your standard bumps!

All the hard work will be worth it once you get to experience the breathtaking views of Innsbruck.

Barra, Scotland

If you were to describe this airfield in two words... you could simply say ‘a beach’. Even more impressively, it’s a beach that takes commercial flights. In fact it’s the only beach in the world to take scheduled, fare paying passengers.

A beach airport holds some obvious challenges, most notably, the sea. Pilots must land at low tide. Obviously the tide timetables are a good indication, but on approach the pilots must carefully observe the runway to see if it is dry enough for a touchdown. One indication is the seagulls. Rumour has it; if the seagulls were walking on the runway, you could go straight in and land. If they were paddling, you took a recce flight, then landed with care. And if the seagulls were swimming, you should go around and back to Glasgow.

For anyone wanting to try a beach landing, this airport is available for light traffic, so why not give it a go?
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