Seven of the World’s Most Amazing Runways

Whether they’re perched on the side of a mountain, made from sand or ridiculously short, these runways are a serious test of pilot skill… 

1. Barra Airport, Scotland

First up, the airport without a runway. Forming part of the Scottish Outer Hebrides, the island of Barra offered little flat land suitable for the development of an airport, so instead Traigh Mhòr beach, a sheltered sandy bay close to the northern tip of the island is used as a take-off and landing strip.

Shown here is 1998, Barra Airport has been operating since June 1936. Wikimedia Commons/James Gray

Barra’s three sand marked ‘runways’ – 07/25 at 2,621ft (799m), 11/29 at 2,231ft (680m) and 15/33 at 2,776ft (846m) – are highlighted by poles at either end, enabling the turboprops to land and take off into the wind.

Scotland’s Loganair serves the airport from Glasgow with De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter 400s, although previous types to visit the island have included de Havilland Herons, Britten-Norman Trislanders, Short Skyvans and Short 360.

2. Gibraltar Airport, Gibraltar

The British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar is served by an airport with a single runway that has a major quirk which makes it an attraction for aviation enthusiasts. The 5,511ft (1,680m) Runway 09/27 intersects Winston Churchill Avenue, the primary connection between Gibraltar and Spain.

Winston Churchill Avenue - which connects Gibraltar with Spain - intersects the runway. Flickr Commons/Scott Wylie

For an aircraft arrival or departure, a well-choreographed operation is put in place for this highly unusual runway configuration. Barriers are lowered on both sides of the airport to prevent cars or pedestrians from entering.

For the locals, the runway intersecting one of their main thoroughfares is little different to waiting for a train at a level crossing.

3. Madeira International Airport, Portugal

Known for its windy approaches because of its location next to mountains, Madeira International is home to a single runway that has been extended on a series of pillars.

The terrain next to the runway causes some very difficult wind conditions. Wikimedia Commons/Michael Gaylard  

Runway 05/23 is 9,124ft (2,781m) long and has the Atlantic Ocean on one side and 6,000ft (1,829m) mountains on the other. The latter generates tricky wind conditions and as a result, the airport has very strict limits governing its operations.

In 2000, the runway was extended by around 3,200ft (1000m) onto a series of pillars, each 230ft (70m) tall. Wikimedia Commons/Karelj

Handling 3.1 million passengers in 2018, the facility is known for its delays and cancellations due to the weather.

4. Princess Juliana, St Maarten

Princess Juliana Airport on the island of St Maarten in the Caribbean is probably the most famous facility in the world. No list of ‘amazing airports’ would be complete without it.

The island is a place where tourists and locals enjoy the sun, crystal clear waters and huge commercial airliners on Maho Beach coming into land just above their heads – it’s considered to be the Mecca for aviation enthusiasts.

Aircraft landing at St Maarten tend to come in low over the adjacent beach. Wikimedia Commons/Todd Neville

The single runway, 10/28 is 7,546ft (2,300m) long and starts almost next to the beach causing the airliners to come in low which enables them to touchdown at the beginning of the runway.

The impact of Hurricane Irma. Ministry of Defense Netherlands

Despite its idyllic surroundings, the island is prone to extreme weather. In 2017, Hurricane Irma hit the island with sustained category 5 winds and associated storm surges. The airfield suffered substantial damage.

5. Courchevel, France

When airport planners are looking to build an airport, they usually look for sites which are large and flat. Courchevel is neither, it’s small and to make things even more exciting, is situated on the side of a mountain.

Courchevel is located on the side of a mountain in the French Alps. Wikimedia Commons/Martin PUTZ

Precariously balanced in the French Alps, Courchevel airfield’s heyday was in the 1980s, when it was commonplace to see the four-engine De Havilland Canada Dash 7s. The single runway, 04/22 is only 1,762ft (537m) long, but boasts an impressive 18.6° gradient.

Nowadays, the facility doesn’t have any scheduled air services, but instead handles a large amount of private flights.

6. Hamilton Island Airport, Australia

Hamilton Island Airport is the primary airport for the Whitsunday Islands off the eastern coast of Australia.

Hamilton Island Airport is also known as the Great Barrier Reef Airport. Wikimedia Commons/Emil Hedaya

The airport is settled on most reclaimed land and has a single runway 14/32, which is 5,787ft (1,764m) long.

The facility is served year-round by Jetstar, Virgin Australia, Qantas and QantasLink. The site also serves as a base for private flights and charter operations.

7. Juancho E. Yrausquin, Saba

Located on the Dutch Caribbean island of Saba, Juancho E. Yrausquin has the world’s shortest commercial runway at only 1,312ft (400m).

In 2016, the airport handled nearly 1,000 aircraft movements, equating to 70,000 passengers. Wikimedia Commons/Fyodor Borisov

Flanked on one side by hills and a cliff that drops into the sea at both ends, the facility is closed to jet traffic and only allows regional airlines’ propeller-powered types to operate in and out of the site.

The most common aircraft to land here are the de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter and Britten Norman BN-2 Islander.