Not all airports are built alike and no two airports are the same. Some are pretty mundane whilst others can be downright challenging. Capt. Lim Khoy Hing takes us on a quick tour of some of the more challenging airports around the region.
A traveller recently posed an interesting question: “What are the most exciting, dangerous and unusual airports in the world?”
In my many years of flying around the world to about 80 destinations, I’d say that the old Hong Kong Kai Tak International Airport was one of the most exciting and challenging ones I have come across. Coming in at second spot is Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal and third is Qamdo Bamda Airport in Tibet. Perhaps there are other more exciting airports that I am not familiar with.
The Kai Tak challenge
The Hong Kong Kai Tak International Airport was quite a challenge to negotiate, to say the least. Firstly, the approach to land on Runway 13 at the airport was very demanding for any pilot in adverse weather conditions. Passengers bound for this airport were treated to an exciting approach during the landing as they were presented with alarmingly close views of nearby skyscrapers and residential apartments, as the plane banked over to make the final landing.
The runway of choice
As a general rule, pilots have the choice of landing from two directions on any single runway, depending on the wind existing at the time of arrival of the plane. Ideally, a plane should always land in the direction of the wind. If the wind was blowing from a north-westerly direction, then Runway 31 (so named because the landing direction is around 310 degrees on the compass) in Kai Tak would be used. The runway for the opposite approach is known as Runway 13.
Due to the high ground on its approach, Runway 13 is far more challenging than Runway 31. Pilots have no alternative but to use this runway if the wind is strong and blowing from a southeasterly direction (around 130 degrees on the compass).
Landing directly in the wind direction is the easy part. However, it’s very tricky for the pilot who is attempting to manoeuvre and turn the plane to line up with the runway on a strong crosswind. Most pilots found landing on Runway 13 a stressful experience, as an autolanding in foggy weather was not possible due to the unusual turn prior to lining up.
As such, pilots must ‘hand fly’ the plane at the last minute with the guidance of a ‘checker board’ located on one of the smaller hills – a visual marking to confi rm the approach to Runway 13 is on the right.
In 1998, a new airport was built, thus ending the exciting views of the interior of offices and apartments on the landing approach.
Strong and gusty winds
Unfortunately in 1993, before the new airport came into existence, an Air China Boeing 747 was involved in a mishap. The aircraft was attempting to make a landing in a gusty and strong crosswind. Because of this, the captain made a judgement error and actually touched down past the two-third length of the runway.
The runway surface was wet from rain and that aggravated the braking efficiency on the remaining one-third portion of the landing distance. This caused the aircraft to over-run the runway, speed headlong onto a collision course with a small building that housed the Approach and Landing System for the opposite runway.
The captain avoided the impending impact by ground looping (turning around) the plane. Unfortunately, it then headed towards the sea and landed in the water. Even though it was only partially submerged, it was written off as a total hull loss. Luckily the accident only resulted in minor injuries to 22 of the passengers on board the plane.
Better late than dead
Sometimes, pilots are reluctant to abort the landing for fear of being chastised by the management (unlikely today) or, inconveniencing the passengers. This decision is somehow fl awed as it can lead to quite serious consequences.
I remember some years back, I aborted a landing on a Boeing 777 due to bad weather on the approach to the Perth International Airport in Australia and, diverted instead to Adelaide, about two hours flight time away. It was costly to the company and it definitely inconvenienced the passengers but an honest feedback from a particular traveller on that flight was: “It was better to be late than to be ‘DEAD’ on time!”
Tribhuvan Airport, Kathmandu, Nepal
Getting to Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu is like trying to land inside a large bowl. This airport sits in the middle of a valley with mountainous terrain all around.
Two airlines, one from Thailand and another from Pakistan have lost a plane each when they hit the surrounding mountains. On July 31, 1992, an Airbus A310 from Bangkok crashed on a steep rock face in a remote mountainous area at an altitude of 11,500 feet caused by the confusion in trying to make an approach to land at the airport.
The authorities found that the probable causes of the accident were the captain’s and controller’s bewilderment over language and technical problems. It was further aggravated by the airline’s failure to provide simulator training to its pilots for the complex Kathmandu approach.
On September 28, 1992, a Pakistan International Airlines Airbus A300 from Karachi also crashed on an approach to Kathmandu airport. Investigators found that the pilot descended prematurely (‘one step to early’ according to the Safety Board reports) at 1,000 feet below the correct flight path. It failed to clear the ‘tip of the bowl’ and crashed onto the southern slope.
Since then, all pilots who operate into this destination are thoroughly trained in the simulator to ensure that they are very familiar with the surrounding high grounds before they are allowed to fly into Kathmandu airport.
Amongst the difficulties at this airport, for instance, an engine failure during take-off would require both pilots to work very closely. Turns are restricted to within four miles; the speed is to be at its optimum climbing rate and the pilot would then spiral the plane to the top of the ‘bowl’ until a safe height is reached before setting course for home.
For landing, pilots have to ‘skip’ over the edge of the ‘bowl’, then carry out a steep descent before easing off the dive in order to land the plane safely. An instrument landing system could not be properly installed on this airport due to the nature of the terrain.
As such, landing at this airport requires skilful manoeuvring and very thorough briefings.
Dizzy at Qamdo Bamda Airport
The Qamdo Bamda Airport in Tibet with an elevation of 14,219 feet comes with its own unique challenges. It is the highest airport with the longest runway in the world. What is so amazing about this airport is that the elevation is well above the safety level for a plane to descend in the event of loss of pressurisation.
One of the regulatory requirements for manufacturers of planes is that the cabin must be pressurised if a plane is flown above 10,000 feet above sea level in order to protect the crew and passengers from the risk of lack of oxygen. Even at the low altitude of 10,000 feet, prolonged exposure at this height without oxygen can cause sluggish thinking and dimmed vision.
Generally, most passengers can tolerate this altitude, as there is about 25% less oxygen than there is at sea level. So, you can imagine how some would feel on arrival at the terminal at 14,219 feet where the air is quite thin. Some can expect dizziness and experience breathing difficulties. Inbound passengers have been warned to move slowly whilst disembarking from the plane!
Additionally, the thin air also affects the performance of the plane. It requires more power to lift off and a longer runway must be constructed in order for the plane to get airborne. It is for this reason why the authorities built the longest commercial runway in the world at 5,500 meters (18,045 feet). Currently, only Air China and China Southern Airlines fly to this destination.
The old Kai Tak International Airport in Hong Kong is but history. It has been replaced by the shiny new modern Chek Lap Kok Airport, which has been ranked as among the best in the world. Getting into Hong Kong is a breeze for pilots after 1998, although it may be a bit ‘boring’ now.
However, when things are safe, they are rarely exciting. And when you are flying towards a difficult landing strip, the last thing you want is an ‘exciting’ experience! Safety is absolutely paramount and pilots strive for this at all times and at any conditions. I hope most of your flights are not boring, but rest assured that your pilots are always doing their utmost to make flying as safe as they possibly can.
Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with Air Asia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories,check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.