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Real Pilots Discuss – The World’s Most Challenging Airports

Pilots,captains, commanders, first officers, second officers, god–call them what you like but the boys and girls who sit at the pointy end of any aircraft are a very talented bunch of people. On a normal day for our flight deck friends, copious amounts of tea and coffee drinking, newspaper reading and flight attendant flirting is occasionally interrupted by actually having to fly a plane. It’s a tough life but someone’s got to do it.

In all seriousness pilots are trained to the very highest standards and, despite what I tell passengers, flying a plane is much more than simply pressing a few buttons. Despite aviation technology continuously improving over the years, technology is only half the story. The expertise of our pilots remains more important than any gadget, no matter how advanced.

It is an incredibly stressful job; company pressures, time constraints, disgruntled passengers, bad weather, long and tiring days, emergency situations–should the proverbial ever hit the fan this is when our pilots really earn their stripes.

Pilots need around 1,500 hours’ flying experience during a 16 month course, and they’d better have a passion for the work, as the training can cost up to £70,000. If that’s not enough, there’s no guarantee they’ll get a job to start paying off those student loans.

Of course it’s not all bad. These guys and gals have THE best office window in the world and, of course, get to work with us gorgeous and glamorous trolley dollies every day!

How does all this tie into challenging airports? In this article, created in collaboration with Air Charter Service we aren’t just looking at the dramatics of some of the toughest challenges pilots face around the world, but also the skill, training and doggedness with which they face those challenges.

We even have a few pilots discussing their personal favourites with us!


Despite closing its doors on July 6, 1998, after being replaced by the new Chek Lap Kok airport, Kai Tak remains one of the most iconic airports in history. When it first opened back in 1925 it was deemed the perfect location for an airfield. But, over the years, as the city of Hong Kong expanded towards its perimeter, the facility became surrounded by numerous skyscrapers, making the approach to the single runway, that stretched out into Victoria Harbour, extremely demanding for pilots and terrifying for passengers and crew.

The famous ‘Checkerboard’ approach to Runway 13 required a low altitude manoeuvre in order to line up with the runway centreline and, was so spectacular, that some passengers claimed to have glimpsed flickering televisions and waving children from apartment windows along the final approach.


By Captain Tonkin.


“My flying career in the SAAF (South African Air Force) and now South African Airways had and has us flying in and out of mostly safe and reasonable airports with decent approach aids and good runways.

The most challenging part of most flights for pilots is the approach and landing, and taking off in bad weather, especially with a heavy aircraft and strong cross winds, is probably the most challenging thing most of us will face. I have had my fair share of all those!

There were some hairy take-offs out of Ondangwa airfield, with heavy (armour-laden) Impala jet aircraft taking off at high temperatures during the Angola war. There were no real airport problems flying F1’s (Mirages), other than landing on the fairly short runway at Rundu with a heavy aircraft.

Airline flying wise, I did a two month flying contract in Vietnam in 1997 (based in Ho Chi Minh City – the old Saigon), flying a Boeing 737 as a co-pilot and there was only one fairly tricky airport we flew to called Hai Phong, in the north-east of Vietnam. It was only four metres above sea level, had a short runway, was in a valley and was always very misty. There were very few approach aids, no ILS (Instrument Landing System) no approach lights, no VOR (Radio beacon), in fact it only had a NDB (Non-directional beacon) which are rarely used now-days.

We always had to do a monitored approach, that is when the co-pilot flies the aircraft (head down on instruments) and the captain monitors the flying, but is ‘head up’, looking for the airfield and runway. We basically had to fly over the NDB beacon at a specific height, hit the stop watch, then descend to our minimum safe height above the ground and hope to see the runway after a determined time. The speed and timing had to be very accurate, but because of the bad visibility in the mist, we quite often never saw the runway and had to divert to another airport or back to Saigon.”


Located in the suburb of Rongotai, New Zealand, Wellington International Airport makes our list due to the challenging weather conditions pilots face on a daily basis. Its location means it is often battered by strong and gusty winds due to the channelling effect of Cook Strait.

According to local site,, the highest local winds ever recorded reached and incredible 154mph and in the windiest year, gales persisted for 233 days.

Tackling Wellington International Airport is a testament to the skill of pilots, both those who managed to land successfully as well as those with the experience to know when it wasn’t a good idea to try.

Check out the incredible video below.


Named after the Aruban minister, Juancho Irausquin, the airport has one of the shortest commercial runways in the world–only 1,312 feet (400m) long, which means it is off limits to jet aircraft.

But for the propeller planes and helicopters that attempt to land at this airfield, it’s certainly a bum clenching experience. Flanked by cliffs on one side and the sea on the other, the approach angle is particularly tricky, and only experienced pilots are allowed to fly here.


By Anonymous Pilot.


(Unfortunately, due to the importance of client and operator privacy, the pilot isn’t legally permitted to divulge his name):

“Every aerodrome around the world poses a potential threat one way or another to a pilot. However there are more challenging airports which airline pilots are subjected to. These require additional training to highlight potential threats and the mitigation of those threats. From an airline operations perspective, a very challenging airport would be Kathmandu, Nepal.

The aerodrome is located at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, with terrain as high as 27,000ft above mean sea level. The runway is directed at the terrain for landing, in a basin 4500ft above mean sea level. What makes this such a challenge is the type of aircraft used to operate into the port. The aircraft used here are wide body Airbus A330’s which are landed on this 46m wide runway and circumnavigated in between terrain which requires the highest level of situational awareness and training.

This approach gives airline pilots the opportunity to see what the aircraft is capable of doing, well within the safety boundaries of its maximum capabilities, which is phenomenal.”

Interestingly enough, Tribhuvan’s problems don’t end with the runway. The airport itself was voted as one of the most hated according to CNN.


Found deep in a valley on the Paro Chhu River, this narrow 3,900 foot runway is flanked on either side by two 18,000 foot Himalayan mountains,  of and suburban houses continue to encroach on the airfield. So challenging is this approach that planes are only allowed to attempt it during daylight hours and with visual meteorological conditions.

Paro Airport is the sole international airport in Bhutan and is currently served by Bhutan Airlines, Buddha Air and Druk Air, the national flag carrier of Bhutan. Due to the incredibly challenging nature of this runway, it is said that only a limited number of pilots have clearance to attempt it.

Have you ever flown in to any of these incredible airfields? What do my lovely flight deck followers think of the list, do you have any to add? Pop your thoughts in to the comments section below.

Hundreds of hours of training for every sort of situation, is the ongoing achievement of pilots from around the world. It takes a special passion for the job, extreme concentration and the capacity to shoulder the responsibility of the hundreds of lives being shepherded to their destination. To reach a remote location or simply arrive closer to your final destination than a scheduled service would allow, charter a private jet with Air Charter Service today.

The original article can be found here.

© by Dan Air

About Confessions of a Trolley Dolly (70 Articles) brought to you by International Gay Trolley Dolly, Dan Air ! Come & join us onboard as we take a peek behind the galley curtain with all your cabin crew & aviation news, galley gossip, glamour & humerous tales of life at 39,000 feet!

1 Comment on Real Pilots Discuss – The World’s Most Challenging Airports

  1. I knew #1 would be Kai Tak. I’d seen videos, then I dated a person “from” HK (she was born in the US, but her parents are/were HK citizens) who’s been on that flight. “Take a right just before you crash into the hill, then just miss downtown on short final” make landing on an aircraft carrier at night look … not easy, but it’s a good thing a lot of airline pilots are former Naval Aviators, y’know?

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