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Jim Eagles: Worst of the white knuckle landings

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Landing or taking off from Lukla Airport in Nepal is a nail-biting experience, with a cliff at the end of the runway. Photo / Jim Eagles
Landing or taking off from Lukla Airport in Nepal is a nail-biting experience, with a cliff at the end of the runway. Photo / Jim Eagles

You may have noticed a burst of publicity a few days ago about Wellington being named among the 15 scariest places in the world to land in a plane.

To anyone who's arrived there during a southerly gale, that will hardly have come as news. I'm not normally a nervous flier, but I have to confess to a few moments of sheer terror on flights where the plane has bucked its way across Lyall Bay, wings swaying perilously close to waves and rocks as the pilot fought to get it on an even keel.

I was actually more interested in what the other scary airports were - so I could take care to avoid them - but when I found the original list on the Daily Telegraph travel website, I was a bit disappointed. I had already landed at a few of them and, with one exception, I don't recall anything particularly frightening. Certainly not in the same class as Wellington on a windy day.

The other 14 were: Paro, Bhutan; Matekane, Lesotho; Saba Island, Caribbean; Sea Ice Runway, Ross Island, Antarctica; Princess Juliana International Airport, St Maarten, Caribbean; Lukla, Nepal; Narsarsuaq, Greenland; Funchal, Madeira; Isle of Barra, Scotland; Gibraltar; Toncontin, Honduras; Courchevel, French Alps; Kai Tak, Hong Kong; Quito, Ecuador.

Of those, the one I can personally confirm to be scary is Lukla, the airport built by Sir Edmund Hillary high in the Himalayas, where a short landing strip runs down to the edge of a steep cliff.

For me, the take-off, where the plane races down the slope hoping to pick up sufficient speed to be airborne by the time it reaches the 600m drop, was scarier than the landing, where you hope the steep slope will enable the plane to stop before it hits the pile of rocks at the top of the runway.

From my own travels, I think there are a couple of other airports which could have been added to the list. Landing at Queenstown is always spectacular, which is why it was recently named by PrivateFly.com as one of the 10 best airport approaches in the world. But I've also seen people turn white with fear at the sight of a mountain peak suddenly looming up out of the clouds just alongside.

And 'Eua, one of the 170 islands in the Kingdom of Tonga, also offers something pretty special. The six-minute flight from the capital, Nuku'alofa, is proudly hailed as "the shortest commercial flight in the world". But it also offers a remarkably short runway. In fact, my flight pulled up only a metre short of the markers at the end, prompting all the locals to burst into spontaneous applause, presumably in gratitude at having survived.

I had thought of inviting readers to email in a few words on their scariest flights. But maybe we're better off not hearing about them.

- NZ Herald

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