It’s known as the Pucker Factor, and everyone contracts it at that particular airport where, frankly, it sucks to land. The worst I’ve flown out of, ever, and I’ve said this time and time again, is Lincoln Park, New Jersey. Lincoln Park, ‘ol N07, is not like Antarctica’s McMurdo Station during the perpetual evening blizzard but it does have narrow, short Runway 1/19 — 2,942 of 40-foot wide pavement surrounded by trees 50 feet tall on the southwestern end of the threshold, displaced 840 feet.
A quirk in the airport’s layout funnels a stream of western wind—in all but the calmest conditions—near the touchdown point in either direction. Just off the north end lies acre after acre of greenhouses, so when you’re landing, you’ve got to slam it down as soon as you cross the trees and the displaced threshold on the other end. You’re guaranteed to eat glass if your engine dies on takeoff. Runway 1/19 is like landing on a carrier without a tailhook. Runway 1/19 has turned the Solid Male to Jell-o.
If I may consider myself the archetypical Solid Male.
Recently I conducted a straw poll of tens of pilots which indicates that approximately 150 percent of all American GA airports present difficult landings. Interviews conducted during the same straw poll of pilots I would also consider archetypical such as myself confirms that every pilot has what might, for lack of a better term, be referred to their Great White Whale. Sometimes they have two, or three, or more whales. Take, for example…
Veteran Small Airplane Pilot with More Hours and Certifications Than God
He doesn’t use airports that scare him, he says, but he says a few airports are challenging. “Challenging” being a 20,000- to 30,000-hour synonym for Pucker Factor. Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, aka ASE, is one such “challenging” airport—“The IFR departure out of Aspen is ‘Do something right or don’t do it at all,’” he says. The engine has to breathe at an elevation of 7,820 feet on a single asphalt runway, 15/33, that measures 8,006 feet. It has a 95-foot wingspan limitation and a 100,000-pound weight restriction and it’s a one-way strip—arrivals land on Runway 33 and departures from Runway 15—a departure with a mountain in the way. In 2001 a Gulfstream III loaded with movie people crashed into terrain trying to get there, killing all 18 aboard, but in a light airplane our Veteran Pilot says it’s not a real problem.
There’s also the one out Catalina Island, California (AVX). Built at the island’s peak elevation, 1,602 feet, Runway 22/4 is pitched in the middle so that airplanes on either end of the 3,000-foot runway can’t see one another. After rainy season, potholes, loose asphalt, and soft spots develop on its surface.
“Those are some of the airports I used to sit up a little bit straighter in the seat,” he says. That’s another 20,000- to 30,000-hour synonym for Pucker.
An Airline Pilot Who Flies a Light Twin for Fun
No doubt—it’s Bryce Resort in Bayse, Virginia, Archetypical Airline Pilot says. The airport, VG18, is private so technically it requires prior permission, but the rule isn’t really enforced that he’s aware of. Runway 5/23, all 2,240 by 50 foot of it, lies in a valley and the approach or departure from either end gets pretty hairy. “I fly our Baron in there, but it has to be pretty light on fuel and cold to make it less pucker factor,” he says.
Why go there if you’re just going to pucker?
“The great thing is that there is a small ski place there where you can walk to the chair lift. It has a whopping 250-foot vertical drop. But to be able to park your plane and shoulder your skis to the lift is pretty cool.” To make it even more mouthwatering year-round, there’s a golf course besides the ski hill.
Telluride, Colorado (TEX), at 9,070 feet the highest commercial airport in North America (Lake County Airport/Leadville, Colorado is the highest at 9,927 feet), used to be tough, Airline Pilot adds, though around two years ago they filled in the trough in the middle of 7,111-long, 100-foot-wide Runway 09/27. Before that it reminded him of landing at a farm where the runway drops away from you at the same rate you descend, until the touchdown point where it turns uphill. “The sunken middle of the airport is where you stood at the FBO and looked west for obstacles,” he says, “but you didn’t realize that the horizon you were scanning was sloped upwards, giving the appearance of an obstruction-free departure. I haven’t been there since they ‘fixed’ it.”
A New Jersey CFI Who Sounds Like Tony Soprano
The coolest airport that Archetypical New Jersey CFI has been to: New Jersey’s Sky Acres (44N). The runway has this huge hump in it–it’s an uphill takeoff or landing no matter which way you’re going. If you were sitting on the numbers, ready for takeoff, you wouldn’t be able to see the other side of the runway. The taxiways take you thru wooded areas from which you can’t see anything. And yet he has a sound reason for going: “There’s a wonderful restaurant there,” he says. “They’ve got some of the most amazing food.”
As a special bonus:
A U.S. Air Force Pilot Flying Twin-Engine Transports in Afghanistan
There’s one he remembers in Nepal: Tenzing-Hillary Airport (LUA), named after the first two guys to summit Everest, whose single 1,500-foot long, 65-foot wide runway 6/24 can only be reached by helicopter or small STOL airplanes. High terrain (the Himalayas) blocks the end of Runway 6, so that’s designated only for landings, while the end of Runway 24 drops off considerably—about 2,000 feet—so it’s the one used takeoffs. That’s the most dangerous airport. He certainly knows which can be labeled Coolest.
Designation ACC, Feysabad Airport is in northern Afghanistan, near China, “In the most beautiful little valley surrounded by mountains in all directions,” the Lieutenant Colonel says wistfully. It’s also an old Soviet pierced metal strip 6,049 by 110 feet that’s supposed to run 18/36 or thereabouts, but as with so many Soviet products it’s crooked like a banana. And the banana analogy doesn’t end there. “When it’s wet, it’s like landing on banana peels,” he says. And so the Feysabad Banana is the one landing strip with the most character.
If you think you have an airport that’s more challenging, has more character, has you sitting up straighter, that makes the most difficult carrier landing look like amateur hour, let us know here.