As far as we know, humans did not evolve biologically to achieve flight. When we noticed this perceived abject failure of evolution, we effectively changed the rules. We didn’t need to flap our arms, we just invented things that flew – and now those things fly faster, higher, and farther than any biological creature on the planet. Manifest destiny. When we achieved this, we found a new way to touch and affect faraway areas in a fraction of the time, and with an exponential increase in logistical capability. It created the super-connected world of human existence that we still thrive in. However, the miracle of human flight immediately comes with a complication: just because there are people at a particular place on the Earth doesn’t mean that naturally favorable terrain for take-offs and landings exists at that location.
No worries, world traveler. With our innovation and ingenuity, we have managed to get literally tons of supplies, people and resources to and from the most secluded, inaccessible and dangerous environments. Recommendation before continuing this post: open up Google Earth’s terrain view as you read along.
Let’s start at the bottom of the world: McMurdo Station, Antarctica. There isn’t any terra firma to land on – just sea-ice that’s frozen solid. Amazingly, we land some of the most massive aircraft in existence full of personnel and supplies on a floating ice runway that is only seasonally accessible, and always melting. That’s correct, even when you are parked on the frozen-water-tarmac, your airframe is sinking into the ice constantly – the birds don’t stay long. Here you will see a U.S. Air force C-130 Hercules taking off at night with skids and a JATO rocket-assist.
In the Azores, Terceira Island is home to Lajes Field (and a strategic U.S. installation). While perhaps not as immediately harrowing as a landing on a floating, ever-melting ice strip, the island is about 960 miles west from the coast of Portugal, and depending on your approach, the airstrip either starts or ends on the beach. Being largely a nest of shield volcanoes, the island’s flattest coastal portion was all that lent itself to aviation options. Being so far away from alternate options for landing makes fuel conservation a high-priority for any overseas flight, but the term “Bingo fuel” starts to earn it’s meaning on approaches like this.
If you are going to attempt to summit Mt. Everest, you’ll first need to book a flight to Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla, Nepal. This slanted runway is called by Slate Magazine the “World’s Scariest Airport.” While many airports might have a claim to this title, Lukla presents a very credible argument for the designation. At an altitude of 9,200 feet and set back in the Himalayas, landing here is not for the amateur aviator. There are several great videos of take-offs and landings around the web, but this one’s cockpit view really tells quite a first-person narrative.
Of course, if you want your take-off to resemble a short roller-coaster crossed with a ski-jump, the French Alps’ has a fantastically frightening airstrip. Courchevel Airport, at a snowy 6,500 feet, services the Les Trois Vallées linked ski-resorts. This video discusses the airfield and what it takes to navigate to it and land successfully. The path has pilots cresting snow-covered ridge-lines and visually navigating by mountain draws.
Gibraltar Airport is another landing strip that basically starts in the water and ends in the water. But that’s not what makes this a crazy place to land. It’s the fact that a local arterial road runs right through it. Yes, the only thing separating incoming and outgoing air traffic from ground traffic is a few guards and some crossing lever-arms.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means. The world has no shortage of crazy places to land… but we will land there. As a final picture of our aviation extremes and capabilities, we’ve landed large aircraft on big moving boats, parked the back doors of helicopters on rooftops for military extractions, and built airports on top of 15,000 foot mountains – either because we (as pioneering or entrepreneur humans) can, or feel we must. The “why” is almost irrelevant, because we nevertheless “do.”
What is important to us, the planning body of the world, is that as long as there are people somewhere, aviation will be a means – sometimes the only means – to service those people. Whether it’s the transportation coordination of hundreds of thousands of vacationing skiers, the logistical supply of mountainous outposts and the surrounding indigenous, the scientific expeditions at the bottom of the world or strategic military planning – we will be a part of these endeavors. Knowing the capabilities, limitations and potentials is vital when planning for a connected world, or even just a connected state. It’s not all just first class from JFK International to Charles de Gaulle.