Flying – the act of sitting in the left seat and watching the world go by – is undeniably the primary attraction of aviation for most pilots. But close behind that is the chance to visit unique places, from bustling cities to remote hideaways. That means visiting airports, and this experience can vary widely.
What makes for a good airport? Is it the scenic location, the friendly tower controller, the low fuel prices, or the memorable courtesy car? Or does it have more to do with the memories at the airport and the flights that started or ended there?
In this month’s reader question, we want to know the best (and worst) airport you’ve ever flown into. Add a comment below and tell us why.
- From the archives: What it takes to fly the President - March 15, 2023
- From the archives: The Airphibian - August 19, 2022
- Go or no go: how much ice is too much? - April 1, 2022
Best – either Toronto Island / Billy Bishop (CYTZ) or Narsarsuaq, Greenland (BGBW) just for the views.
Worst – Newark, NJ or Atlanta-Hartsfield, just with how busy they are.
CYTZ is a great airport – breathtaking approach and a convenient location. But the fees are pretty high these days.
I like both of those. Narsarsuaq is stunning if a good VFR day. City Centre in Toronto is just wonderfully convenient, like Burke Lakefront in Cleveland is as well. Sadly missed but the same was Meigs in Chicago, which I wasn’t a pilot for when I landed there in a 206 on floats, but at least I got to land there before Daley tore it up illegally. Mackinac Island is one I liked for the surrounding scenery and the enjoyable weekend that it provides. Aspen is quite memorable to me as well. For a destination we really enjoyed Nemacolin as well in PA (south of Pittsburgh), with a seriously sloped one-way-in/one-way-out runway.
I still want to do Telluride, and Catalina Island.
Bad to me was a very rundown field in Oklahoma that had cheap fuel and a lot of grass growing through the runway. Without digging out an old logbook I don’t remember which field, so the guilty party remains anonymous I guess:)
Sedona is easy compared to Glenwood Springs in Colorado or Thermopolis in Wyoming. Both have blind approaches.
I have not been these in years, but I will have to echo Toronto or City Island (CYTZ) on a VFR day as breathtaking and JFK as the most challenging taxiway system at night, in the rain and reduced visibility.
Best – Monterey (MRY) for the views on approach and departure + feeling of landing on a big carrier with the jutting out West end of 28L. Second Santa Monica (SMO) with approach over the beach.
Worst – Harris Ranch (308) with a 30 ft wide runway and sky high temperatures that could fry and egg in the cockpit during runup. No close tie here!
I might actually swap those around between just them. Monterey: A small airport that acts like a big one, controllers on you if you’re the least bit late calling in, expensive FBOs and limited after-hours access if you park on the East side. Sure, Harris ranch is hot and narrow but the food and atmosphere of the place is worth it, assuming you’re a carnivore.
Limiting my comments to smaller GA airports.
Best – Mt. Vernon, Illinois (KMVN) with excellent food and generally great folk at the airport and at the FBO (SRT Aviation). Nice, long and wide runway with an ILS approach on 23. I got to meet the world’s tallest lineman… not certain if that’s true, but he certainly could fill most GA aircraft without using a ladder. Excellent service!
Worst – Haven’t found a really bad GA airport anywhere, although they probably exist. Anyplace that allows me to land and leave is fine with me.
The best view for me is a toss up between Sedoan AZ Down Town KC…Sedona has a wild west view of millions of years of layers and Earth’s history if you want to know what it is like to land on an Aircraft Carrier try Sedona on a windy day. Down Town KC has a great view too but it’s mostly man made, sky scrapers you can see yourself in, then dropping down in to a hole of buildings and bridges and a ground crew that can get you to all the right places within walking distance of the Airport. Let me add Johnson Lake International to this list, a small grass strip in south central Nebraska, 500 feet from the Lake and my house…that my friend is as good as life gets. No FBO no fuel, but you can walk to my Marina again 500 feet away and we will find you a car, fuel a place to stay may even get you on the water, we can store your boat here too.
I too agree there is no bad Airport, a counrty road can look dam good if needed.
I am getting ready to fly around the month of August and one set of route elements might put me crossing over Johnson International. But all I see on google is one b&b way over in the northwest part of the lake or going way up to I-80. Any better options to stay or is it a tent and walking over to the campground?
Also, can you get a one day or several day fishing license out there and rent a boat or guide at the marina?
Medo’s Resort has cabin’s with a view of the lake you can rent by the day or week, best food on the Lake too. A short walk from the South end of the runway. There is a golf course South of the Dam, and yes a camp Ground again just South of the Runway. August is a very slow time for most of the Lake during the week you will feel like you are on a private lake all to your self. As with flying the weather makes or breaks it for everyone.
I’ll second Sedona, AZ for my top airport. The view on the approach makes it easy to forget that you have a job to get the plane on the runway.
Worst airport I’ll say is KVGT. Unfortunately the area around VGT has become super rundown the past few years and it’ pretty rough. Not to mention ATC has a notorious reputation for delaying and trying to kill people. Just fly into HND and save yourself the trouble.
My favorite, First Flight, FFA. Bucket list airport, challenging and just a great trip and visit.
I don’t have a worst, but flying in the northeast in the winter, ALL airports can be bad when really cold!
BEST–Catalina, Sedona, Mattituck, Goodspeed, Monterey, Basin Harbor.
Bests: South Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Mammoth Lakes, Shelter Cove, Columbia, Mendocino (Little. River), Boonville, Santa Barbara, Lake Isabella, Oceana, Lake Almanor (Rodgers Field), Quincy (Gansner), Trinity Lake (Trinity Center). All beautiful CA airports you should visit if you can. Sedona and Monument Valley still on my bucket list for AZ.
KPVD the T.F. Green airport on Providence, RI is pretty awesome. A night instrument landing will find you with the best runway lighting I have ever experienced. The intermodal transportation hub with the main terminal connected to the train station for regional and Amtrak is outstanding (weekdays only), the rental car center, several hotels and lots of restaurants.
KBJI In Bemidji, MN lake country is pretty, easy, and with fishing options.
I am not a fan of Fort Meyers downtown. But mainly my experience with a very poor, aggressively incompetent female controller who seems constantly overwhelmed and behind the curve. I excuse that at many ATC training fields because we are all new sometime. But this particular one seems to have been there for years. So I just tend to go to Naples more.
That pics sure looks like Catalina Island airport just west of LA, been there, interisting cliff in your face approach. Runway has an arch to it (heard it was being modified). BUt there is a 1/2 way marker and a good restraunt, then we have the golf carts to cruise into Avalon.
Up and down drafts are common at Catalina depending on the day and time, but a skill builder, flew it right after I recieved my private in 1986.
Best: Moraine Air Park south of Dayton, Ohio. It will bring the hidden “Carrier Pilot” out in you if you are a novice as I am.
Worst: San Clemente Island. Try to make it over your shoulder to Catalina when your engine begins to crap on you. You are not welcome on San Clemente Island. Let me emphasize: You are not welcome on San Clemente Island. The recovery of the aircraft from the Island after a simple repair to fly it off…………is typical government cluster fock. Keep your temper after arrival as you are screamed at while being circled by what I assume was some kind of security psycho. It’s well and good he’s on an Island. The rest of this story from years ago is pages long…….too long to print here. Why am I thinking that a military version of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (or something just as deviant in a military sense) is in existence and functioning on San Clemente?
I’d love to hear that story. They’re always looking for articles…
When I was stationed at NAS Pt. Mugu, we did some close air support work with the SEAL teams on San Clemente. If they were in the middle of an exercise, your unexpected stop could have caused them great expense and operational delays. They also do missile tests, live fire exercises, bombing and artillery practice, commando training, field-carrier landing practice on the runway for West Coast aviators, etc. None of these mix well with General Aviation. They don’t want us there for a reason.
With that said, they shouldn’t scream at a guy who had to dead-stick it in to their runway; but understand that you were not a part of their plan that day.
BS. Let’s say they were doing any of those things that day. You could not ask for a better exercise to test their response under pressure than to have a random GA plane land by surprise. They should have paid the guy! Looks like they flunked the test.
For a pilot that flew for ~50 years; active duty in the Air Force; in the Mass. Air National Guard, and in the civilian sector; the answer to that question is easy. The WORST airport I ever flew into was in upstate New York ( I can’t recall the name). However, I do recall that you could not see the grass strip runway until you were on final approach (hills were in the way), the runway length was about 1,800 feet and ‘hilly’ (so, you could not see the total lenth of the runway… REALLY bad! … but I did land there without any problem(s)! The BEST airport I ever landed at is ALL the over 20 I ever landed at… because the runways were ALWAYS clear and well maintained….. extremely important for ALL the pilots that plan and/or use the airports… Amen, AMEN!
Bests: Catalina, Sedona and Telluride
I prefer Oregon’s 2S7, also known as Chiloquin State. Great scenery, wonderful weather, and a quick flight up to Crater Lake!! BTW: The food there isn’t bad for the price either.
Best: Catalina KAVX. The runway was just replaced with concrete in May. The DC Grill is a great place to eat. The local bike shop in Avalon will rent you a mountain bike for the day and drop it off right at the airport for you if you are interested in exploring the island interior.
Just under 200 hours. So not a ton of experiences yet.
Two faves so far…
DYT in Duluth MN. The harbor on your left. The Big Lake on your right. The Lift Bridge out in front. Then a quick courtesy car hop or bike ride into Canal Park for a bite to eat. Not sure it gets better than that.
Then there is 55Y – Rushford, MN. A cool little strip on top of a bluff in bluff country. And free root beer floats for those who mosey on in.
Not sure there will ever be a worst. Who can complain when we do what we do?
I’ll second both those Jerry.
Jerry, how is it I can claim my root beer float? I my add those two to my August plans but rushford in particular seems like a ground transportation challenge.
That is without a doubt Catalina Island (AVX)
Galveston is fun to fly into but can be a challenge to pilot with low hours. Approach from either direction puts you over water; Galveston bay or Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile you are trying to stay out of Houston control zone and let them know what you are doing. Take off on 17 has a warning to be prepared for loss of horizon on takeoff. Probably more of those around the country but this is the only one I have flown into. Flying over the piney woods of East Texas there are several small unattended airports barely chopped out of the pine trees. Keeps you busy.
Okay, we’ve heard from a lot of West coasters, here are a couple of favorites from some East coast fliers.
Civilized: Cleveland, OH Burke Lakefront (KBKL) offers a city panorama that always excites. Turning left base for either of the runway 6’s from out over Lake Erie, fills the windscreen with a vibrant downtown, football stadium and waterfront development. The view is almost surreal! After landing, you are a short walk/cab ride away from the best this city has to offer.
Uncivilized: Ocracoke Island, NC (W95) is a strip of asphalt with seemingly few amenities. But… you are a 5 minute walk to great beaches and a 5 minute golf cart ride to this coastal jewel of a town. Several businesses monitor CTAF and will come out to pick you up.
Best: Courchevelle Altiport in France. (Check it out on YouTube.) 1800 foot upsloping one-way with a carrier approach. I flew a Robin 160, with a mountain instructor to keep me safe. The landings were great and the one I could fully call my own was very satisfying. Then over the mountain to Meribel for another satisfying landing at a much lower key altiport. Mountain scenery was spectacular, flying close enough to reach out and scratch your nails on the granite (or that’s the way it looked). Flying in France is great! Flying clubs everywhere and the cost is reasonable.
Worst: Runway 25 left at Livermore (KLVK) with a semipermanent wind gradient on short final or a thermal that entirely overcomes the power off glide of an Aeronca Champ or 20 Kt winds – depends on the day and hour.
Columbia, California when the wind is from the Northwest.
A Dude Ranch [ WY11 ] is a narrow paved strip. It is on a hill so it is one-way. Elevation 7,780 feet on the south, 7,700 on the north.
N 41° 9″ 30″— W 106° 33′ 48″
Repaved in 2012, the hill was much steeper when I landed there.
BTW, if you are flying a turbo that does dot have automatic mixture control and you set full rich in case of a go-around, your engines will quit at idle. So you’d better set full rich in case of a go-around BUT lean the mixture 1/2 way as soon as you’re on the ground.
Good food and nice people. Look it up on Google Earth.
The best airport is your home-drome when you’re arriving back after a lengthy trip! It is great fun to visit many airports, but I never get the same euphoria as when I spy the runway at wherever I call home and begin the graceful descent down to it. It helps that now my home is Amelia Island, FL (KFHB) which is scenic in it’s own right, but I felt the same at KDPK (Atlanta).
However, for fun “other” spots, I’ll throw out Moontown, AL (3M5) as a great little turf strip that takes you back in time. It sits nestled against a hill on the south side, and is wide open and smooth and great for taking tailwheel training in a restored Aeronca Champ. Another fun “carrier-style” landing is Sylva, NC (24A) which sits perched on the top of a hill with steep drop-offs on all sides. It gives a taste of mountain flying in the Appalachians. Richard Collins must have agreed, as several of his Sporty’s IFR videos featured challenging approaches to it.
I’m lucky to have amassed a relatively long list of airports visited, for a GA pilot. The most unique experience was landing at 2S8 at Wilbur, WA. Several summers ago, I had the opportunity to fly a Zenith Zodiac from Florida to Seattle. The final leg was from Missoula, MT (KMSO) to Port Jefferson, WA (0S9), the airplanes new home. After departing MSO, I flew at 6,500 ft following the valleys through the Rockies, fighting a 30 kt head wind that seem to double in some of the narrower valleys in Northwest MT. When I finally broke out over the flat of eastern WA I had this sense of accomplishment but still had work to do. The airplane had the duration to make the full trip, but the rough ride was wearing on me and the idea of taking a break, topping off with fuel and reviewing the planned route through the Cascades seemed like a good idea. Nearest airport at that moment, 2S8 at Wilbur. Direct To 2S8. As I was approaching Rwy 20 I saw the biggest Dust Devil I had ever seen, hundreds of feet tall, and when I crossed the numbers the heat rising off the fresh asphalt cause the Zodiac to float down the runway to a long landing. As I taxied back to the buildings on the north end of the field, I wondered if I had made the right choice. Buildings, hangers, fuel pumps, freshly paved surfaces, but not a soul in sight. I pulled up to the pumps, no locks, but no card reader either. Where am I? There was a clipboard that read something to the effect, “write down your tail number, phone, address and gallons pumped. We’ll send you an invoice.” That’s what I did. 10 gallons per side. Three weeks later I got the invoice for $70 and mailed a check.
The rest of the story. After pumping fuel and scoping out the rest of the trip, I spent a few minutes soaking it all in. Eastern Washington in Mid Summer is hot and dry with fallow farm fields as far as you can see and here I sat, a long way from Florida, wondering and curious about this airport. About that time, I see and hear an airplane coming in fast and low. The big Air Tractor landed short, roared onto the ramp doing a 270 right in front of the pumps. Out jumps Greg, of Greg’s Crop Care. He was in the middle of aerial spraying potato field down south. What a nice man. He spent some time advising me on the best path over and through the Cascades. He explained the clipboard and the honor system with fuel had been around for years and he had never been stiffed and the inventory always balanced. Pilots are good people. After takeoff, as I turned toward the Columbia River, I saw another Dust Devil, taller than the first one. Apparently they are very common in Eastern Washington, and on Mars.
Best – Many but I’ll add KHAF to the list on a clear day. You’ll get a gorgeous flight along the coast and a two minute walk to Princeton harbor shops and restaurants, some with fine dining.
Don’t really have a worst. Minor annoyances with Monterey but I just consider that as part of the flying process, adapt to the situation.
For me it, the best airport depends on what I’m flying and why I’m there. These days I fly a Maule. My favorite airport likely will have no services. To be able to land, shut down and hear silence is wonderful. An airport that has nearby civilization that I enjoy is KPFC. The Pacific ocean is a short walk, as is town.
For many years I flew a C310 then a C340 . The typical mission with these airplanes was either business or a family trip. In the grand scheme of aviation neither of these planes burned enough fuel for an FBO to get excited to see us coming. Those airports where we were treated graciously and our needs accommodated in a friendly manor stood out. Some that stand out are CYYJ, CYVR, KPAE, KRDM, KVGT, KMFR, KAPC
The Tenzing Norgay Lukla Airport stands out for me as the most memorable I have ever flown into (courtesy of one of the local carriers, of course). Sitting at 9337 asl, 1600 feet long and a 12% gradient, it resembles a carrier deck, but is one of those “one way” airstrips, where you land on 06 and depart 24. Using such aircraft as Dornier 228’s or Twin Otters, pilots fly a GPS route from Kathmandu up valleys until this tiny strip appears up ahead. Progressively the flight comes down between ridges, beyond a point of no-return where the crew is committed to land. Landings are firm followed by a generous dose of reverse thrust to exit onto the only available tarmac for unloading. I believe only commercial traffic is allowed. After unloading passengers (mostly hikers and climbers) and their gear, Kathmandu passengers are loaded, engines started, taxiing on Rwy 24 is followed by a 10-second full power run-up before releasing brakes and rolling down 24. Typically aircraft break ground about 100 feet before the end of the runway. This is a VFR only operation, and is often interrupted because of clouds forming in the valley due to lift. Inbound and outbound flights are tightly coordinated to ensure separation in the air and on the ground.
I like AVX, IZA (Santa Inez) and Oceano. Santa Inez has an airport car you can use (top it off and put $20 in the glove box) allowing you to go to the towns of Solvang, Los Olivos and others in the Santa Inez Valley. It’s located walking distance fro Gainey Vineyards. There is a courtesy shuttle to the nearby Chumash Casino, we had lunch there and my nephew won enough at the roulette table to pay for lunch and part of the flight. Oceano (L52) has the get-away-from-it-all atmosphere and a couple of good lunch places.
I’ll agree Sedona is on the top of the list. Back in the day I’d fly to Sedona with my son enjoying breakfast, while introducing him to the world of aviation. He now has 12 years in as an air traffic controller and loves aviation as well.
I’ve been lucky to have spent a majority of my working career connected to aviation. I’m a retired professional photographer, and flown all over the west in helicopters shooting amazing sites. I would also say any suitable clearing allowing for a landing in a helicopter, be it a river bank, or mountain top is also a perfect “airport”.
Being retired and still flying, I can easily say, “as for a bad airport, I haven’t found one yet”!