Crappy runways

Catalina Airport
Catalina Airport, the "airport in the sky."

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.”

Tenzing-Hillary Airport
Tenzing-Hillary Airport in the Himalayas.

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.

Feysabad.

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.

37 Comments

  • OK, for starters. Rose Field in Orient, New York on Long Islands North Fork. Grass, 1150 feet long, 18/36, downhill on 18, up hill on 36 so you have to land/take off on 36. Ok, short but doable. Oh but, an electric line off the threshold on 36! Better be on your game AND light! Then, St Barts: sevrer downhill, single runway.2133 ft long If you are landing downhill, you better have good brakes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-z2o0acIlm4
    Then, Lares, Puerto Rico, Cut off mountain top, no threshold either end, uncontrolled, 2500 feet (about) whew! Pucker up!

  • I love Catalina. Being on final for the “Airport in the Sky” is a great experience. Not crappy at all.

  • For Passenger Pucker, try, as I did, landing in a Twin Otter on the small island of Saba, which is not much more than the tip of a volcano poking out of the Caribbean. It’s a 1299-foot runway that ends at the edge of steep, rocky cliffs. This is the best photo I could find but this doesn’t really do the height of the cliffs justice. Check out a bunch of YouTube videos as well. http://www.jetphotos.net/viewphoto.php?id=409991&nseq=8

    • Learned to fly out of LGA. Sky Acres IS on the east side of the Hudson (Kobelt, great hmburgers … on the west side) and Andover-Aeroflex housed a WW1 aircraft collection so I visited often (mid-60’s)as WW1 aircraft are “my thing”. 🙂

      Thanx for the St. Bart’s approach, Peter. Amusing ….. a go-around even before the guy crossed the threshold.

  • It’s not just tight landing strips, there are lots of those in the back country; but consider normal airstrips with “unique” traffic procedures also. My least favorite out here in the west is Pearson(VUO)just across the river from Portland Intn’l (PDX). A great little airport with lots of history, but it sits right underneath the PDX final approach and only has a small keyhole in the Class C airspace for entry and exit. The locals say it’s ok, but I pay a lot of attention when approaching the keyhole.

  • Speaking of Oregon, Pacific City (PFC) is quite the adventure. 1875′ by 30′, often flooded at high tide, a road with power lines on one end and water on the other.

  • The squirreliast airport in the states that I’ve tried is K22, Big Sandy Regional Airport in Prestonsburg, KY, 1221 MSL

    Rwy 3/21 is so much fun. You either have to shoot a diagonal approach and worry about clearing trees with your wheels and your left wing, OR you fly your pattern around a mountain with the airport out of sight almost until you turn final, then a huge tree just off the end of the runway.

    It is not my favorite airport, because doing a visual approach when the airport is out of sight is not my favorite thing. I wouldn’t dream of doing an circling instrument approach into that place. No way.

  • Phil, I appreciate that you mention night carrier operations on Stennis in your bio, but please don’t ever refer to coming aboard a moving runway as amateur hour.
    Those who do it belong to an exclusive, invitation only club.

    • You called that one spot on, Ralph. There’s no such thing as amateur hour landing on any carrier. You had better be a highly trained and qualified professional to even attempt it.

    • Saying, for example, ‘that conflagration made a five-alarm-fire look like a marshmallow roast’ is neither an insult to firefighters or marshmallows. Quite the contrary, actually.

      Goodness, must everyone be a victim anymore?

      • Agreed! It is amazing how many people get so easily offended when they do not read well enough and fail to understand the tongue-in-cheek nature / wit / sarcasm / humor in a comment such as the one referenced. Writing that actually landing on a carrier is amateur hour and writing that the challenges provided by another landing makes carrier landings look like amateur hour are two completely different statements. And as Felix alludes to, using the one to illustrate by comparison the difficulty of the other is a tribute, not an insult.

        Anyway, it is quite possible that landing a taildragger on a very short sloping backcountry runway with a severe crosswind and without the aid of a landing signal officer, fancy avionics, tail hook, catch net and tons of thrust for a go around might actually be more difficult and contain more risk.

  • According to my current charts the runway at ASE is still 7006 feet long. As for the G3 accident, they were after dark and in poor weather. Many years ago only air carrier aircraft were authorized to operate in there at night. And that authority required special training and checking for the crewmembers who flew that flight. Also arrivals are on 15 and departures are on 33. Light aircraft can and do land on 33, however it can be a little tight.

  • When I flew out of Lukla aka the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in 1990, pavement was on the wish list. The runway was dirt and fist size or smaller rocks and turbine Otters were the only real way to come and go. The runway is quite steep as well which helps stopping on landings, but the departure is definitely a prayerful experience as it wasn’t uncommon to drop into the valley to pick up airspeed before continuing the flight. Irregardless…a bucket list experience!!

  • Interesting I haven’t seen the old St. George airport (KSGU) mentioned. With an average of three crosswind conditions, a hump, a pattern that looks like your flying into a cliff, and no real options once you get on final, that is a tough nut to crack for some. I love that old airport.

  • Falwell Airport (W24) in Lynchburg, VA is an interesting one. You land on RW28 and the runway pitches up in the middle to the west end. Take-offs are on RW10 and you can only see about 500′ in front before the runway then drops to the east end. Obviously you can’t see one end from the other, but the interesting thing is the sharp pitch up (landing), or down (taking-off), in the middle part of the 2900′ runway.
    The folk there are very friendly and helpful.

  • Based at Sussex, NJ for many years, I often spent my Sundays going airport hopping. Maybe my memory is faulty but neither Lincoln Park nor Sky Acres are on my “pucker” list. Aeroflex-Andover wasn’t bad either. They all require a good approach, nothing more.

  • I would vote for St Barts too….I haven’t been there since 1974 but, other than a lot of expansion, it looks like the same exciting approach.

  • Crappy Runways? No, I call them challenging and skill building. In my Air Force days, I have made some pretty interesting landings in Africa with a C-130, but that aircraft was made for challenging strips. Since then, I’ve had some fun landing a L-1011 at LGA in good and bad weather. I loved them all though.

  • I rented a 172 with instructor at Grand Case Airport on French St Martin. We did landings at St. Barts 15 miles away. Ives was a great patient instructor. Keeps his hands off the controls but talks you through the landing. Turn left at the rock, keep the runway markings just barely visible over the top of the mountain, 70 knots and you’re down. Best $200 I’ve spent flying in a long time. Even better than the rented 172 in Iceland!

  • Catalina is definitely an experience. The first time I landed there I made a nice approach, and, as the Archer likes to do, I was floating and floating along in ground effect – I was probably somewhere around 1/3 of the way down the runway when whoever was manning the Unicom (and who fortunately had his eyes out the window) said “Archer landing go around”. I didn’t hesitate for a second, just punch the throttle and came around for another try. Since then I’ve learned you better have your feet firmly on the ground well before the “hump” otherwise it could get ugly fast.

    My other favorite Southern Calif “pucker” airport is Santa Paula, hugging the hillside all the way around the pattern. And then there’s the carrier landing on 16 at Georgetown in N. Calif. But with a little practice and a lot of airspeed control all of these are manageable. I suspect the boys up in Alaska just laugh at what the rest of us call pucker factor!

  • “Crappy” runways?!? I LOOK for them! They’re called Fun Runways!

    I haven’t been around much, but the hairiest one I ever landed one—and I know it’s nothing compared to what anyone’s talking about here—was Robinson Field (8I1) in Kentucky in a C172. 1700ft of BUMPY grass marked by old milk jugs spiked on t-posts. Granted, I had 40degrees of flaps in that bird, but I didn’t help myself by flying the pattern WAY too hot and having to dump the flaps on short final to make the runway and get down over the trees.

    LOTS of fun, though! I’m always looking for the shortest, closest, unpaved strip I can land on when I’m out flying.

    (Peter T, I like that story! Nice flying there and quick thinking to listen to the UNICOM operator like that.)

    • Good one! I’ve been into Robinson Field before, but in a helicopter. I thought it was tight for that, so I couldn’t imagine doing it in an airplane.

      • Thanks, John! In hindsight, as an inexperienced 80-hour pilot in a new airplane (to me) it may not have been the brightest thing to do…..

  • Wag Aero in Lyons, WI and 2N2 Newfound Valley Airport in Bristol, NH are neat airports with hills and trees. Not a place to send a solo student pilot unless they are really ready for a their check ride.

  • My plane is based at Catalina; made hundreds of landings here. Always gets my attention!

    And the surrounding ocean views are breath-taking.

  • the dodgeville airport (don q inn) in wisconsin was a fun airport. you would land uphill, and take off downhill. there was also a peak in the runway, so that you could not see one end from another. taking off at night in the dark would put you below the surrounding tree line. you had to make sure you were at a positive rate of climb–if not, you would end up in the trees. and since the runway was dropping away from you, your first thought was–great, i’m climbing.

  • In the early 1980s Whidbey Air Park (W10) was not paved and pretty rough. The landing was OK, the ELT tripped on take off.

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