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The Airports with the Scariest Landings in the World

Updated: Jan. 13, 2023

Nervous fliers might want to avoid these airports!

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Reagan International Airport

While flying is an extremely safe mode of travel, that doesn’t mean that you won’t experience a hair-raising plane ride every now and again. In fact, at these 12 airports, nerve-racking rides are the norm. Some are in incredibly remote locations, while others are close to cities—maybe a little too close for comfort. First up: Reagan International Airport.

Flying into, or out of, our nation’s capital can cause some jarring rides. This Washington, DC airport borders two no-fly zones, and pilots often have to swerve to avoid flying over the Pentagon and the White House. In 2008, a flight accidentally swooped into one of the no-fly zones, and all of Congress had to be evacuated. Another flight into Reagan, this one in 2015, had a scary encounter with a flock of birds.

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Paro Airport, Bhutan

This airport, situated in the Himalayas, is considered one of the world’s most dangerous. The number of pilots qualified to fly into Paro Airport is in the single digits. Those pilots have to swoop around small hills to get to this landing strip tucked between 16,000-foot mountains.

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Barra Airport

Situated on a tiny island to the west of Scotland (also called Barra), this is the world’s only airport where the runways are on a beach! As cool as that might sound, landing on the sand can make for a bumpy landing, and the roughness of the ride often depends on how the tides have behaved that day. In fact, the airport can only operate during low tide because the runways are underwater during high tide. Check out these other 22 things a flight attendant won’t tell you.

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Chicago Midway International Airport

Chicago Midway Airport opened in 1927, and its runways are about 2,000 feet shorter than runways at newer airports, leaving less wiggle room for pilots. As if that weren’t enough, chilly weather often causes harrowing flying conditions and requires planes to be de-iced. Icy planes are one of the 12 outrageous things that can cause major flight delays.

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Princess Juliana Airport

Landings at Princess Juliana Airport can be just as scary for people outside the plane as for those in it. Planes fly incredibly close to a public beach before skimming the airport fence and touching down on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. Here are 18 things you should never, ever do on a plane.

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John F. Kennedy International Airport

This airport’s proximity to both LaGuardia and Newark airports can make navigating the New York City skies a challenge. On top of that, noise restrictions that have been in place since 1964 force pilots to make a tricky maneuver known as the “Canarsie Approach” (named after a Brooklyn neighborhood) to land on a certain runway. Pilots descend into JFK with only five miles of visibility.

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Gibraltar Airport

The runway of this airport, situated on the southern coast of Spain, stretches out over the Bay of Gibraltar, so there’s no room for error for incoming planes. And that’s if planes make the landing at all—turbulent weather often strikes the bay and forces pilots to re-direct flights to other airports in Spain, Morocco, or even Portugal. Straight from a pilot, here’s what is really happening during midair turbulence.

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Madeira Airport

Pilots require special training to land at this airport, which sits on Madeira Island in the middle of the Atlantic, near Portugal and Morocco. The descent often terrifies passengers as the plane heads straight for the island’s mountains before turning sharply to align with the direction of the runway. These are the 16 air travel mistakes you need to stop making before your next flight.

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Tenzing-Hillary Airport

One glance at this runway and you can see why this Nepal airport is easily one of the world’s scariest. Tenzing-Hillary airport, named after the first-ever climbers of Mount Everest, services the mountain’s base camp, and its terrifying runway seems to disappear right off the side of the mountain into thin air. As if that weren’t enough, the wind can be brutal! Learn where to sit for the smoothest ride and 12 other airplane needs.

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John Wayne Airport

Take-offs from this California airport are often so abrupt that they’ve been compared to a missile launch. Since the airport is surrounded by residential communities, strict noise restrictions are in place. Because of this, the planes dart up steeply and quickly before cutting the thrusters, which can be jarring and unexpected for passengers.

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Queenstown Airport

The massive mountain ranges surrounding this New Zealand airport, along with buffeting winds, often make for a nerve-racking descent. The plane’s wings are forced to work overtime, as the plane requires flap adjustments to make the sharp banks into the lakeside valley. Sometimes the pilot will even have to circle back up and make multiple attempts to land. Read about the craziest things flight attendants have seen from airplane passengers.

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San Diego International Airport

This California airport is located downtown, which occasionally makes for a nail-biting descent as the plane plunges right toward the heart of the city. Winds from the west, and mountains to the north and east, add to the fear factor. These are 40 more secrets your airline pilot won’t tell you.

[Sources: NY Post, stuff.co.nz, Travel & Leisure]