Friday, 18 June 2010

The World's Scariest Landings

Today's post is by someone whose travel history makes mine look mundane. I've always loved flying, so I was fascinated to read Ian's take on the scariest landings in the world... if anything, I'm just jealous of these experiences! Though I will get to take a helicopter to start the journey home from Narsaq.

The World's Scariest Landings
by Bangkok Ian

Hi, welcome to my first guest post. I opted to write about travel, thanks for the opportunity Rachel. I consider travel to be the most rewarding of pastimes and welcome its mind-expanding experiences. Having visited more than 60 countries I feel qualified to write with some authority on airports, specifically the approaches to them from the air.

I have two particular tales to relate to you; they concern 'character building' descents to a couple of notable airports. I used to think the old Hong Kong airport was quite unsafe and it scared me a little.

The first airport that really got to me was Paro International, Bhutan. A cuter, more twee international airport there cannot be. There are only a handful of flights a week and the main terminal is no bigger than a branch of Starbucks. The immigration officer was about 75 years old and wore an embroidered silk gown complete with mandarin style headgear and Fu Manchu inspired moustache. I saw this on shaky legs, shaky for two reasons; firstly the lack of oxygen, the airport is at about 8,000 feet above sea level. The second reason for unsteady legs was the final approach I had just experienced.

Apparently the flight simulator sequence that all pilots must successfully complete before getting approval to fly into Paro has only been passed by eight pilots, mostly ex-military gung-ho types. Our pilot was a Sikh who had flown fighter jets in the Indian Air Force.

The first indication I had that the landing may be eventful was the curious announcement from the stewardess, it went something like this. "Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. We will shortly be beginning our descent into Paro airport. Please tighten your seatbelts and do not be alarmed by the proximity of the mountains or the attitude of the aircraft, this is perfectly normal."

Well, she had my attention so I looked out of the window. A curtain of Himalayan mountains, much higher than our current height was filling the sky. The plane appeared to be heading straight for the peaks. Suddenly it flipped sideways and I was looking down at the adjacent bank of seats. No sooner had I got used to the new angle when equally suddenly the plane banked violently to the opposite side and levelled off before thudding down and screeching to a halt on the runway. Looking back towards the mountains I could not see where the plane had threaded itself through. All the passengers broke out into spontaneous applause and breathed a collective sigh of relief. The old Hong Kong airport had nothing on this; it was more like a horribly real theme park ride.

Two years ago, however, I was forced to revise my number one scariest airport yet again to be Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand. I was in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, not a big plane, five seats including the pilot. I was upfront with the dual set of controls just in front of me. In so small a plane you feel every little turbulent bump much more acutely and the ride over, or rather through, the tops of the snow covered mountain range en route to Milford Sound fiord was turning into quite a memorable journey.

From our departure airport at Queenstown the little plane was scheduled to fly for about 40 minutes to meet up with our cruise vessel for the middle section of the day on Milford Sound. The pilot’s voice crackled into my headphones "There’s the strip below." I was incredulous – surely he didn’t mean that short bit of tarmac between the river and the sea nestled between mountains of 6,000 feet minimum! I’m afraid he did – he put the plane into an impossibly steep suicidal dive down the mountainside and levelled out over a river before plopping down and slamming on the brakes. Milford Sound: a new scariest airport for my list. I looked forward to my lunchtime cruise to recover and then panic set in as I realised we would have to do the same in reverse later that day to get back to Queenstown.

Does anyone have another contender for the world’s most character building landing?

I'm in Greenland! I promise to catch up on comments, and come round and visit you all, just as soon as I get home. I'll try to keep in touch via Twitter and my Facebook page.


Emma said...

OMG I would so be sick because I'm such a wuss!! I don't mind taking off or the actual flying but I hate landing with a passion!!! Good to meet you Ian....great post.

Red-haired hiker said...

Notes two airports never to fly into, since circling at Heathrow can leave me feeling queasy on a bad day.

Writing Without Periods! said...

Thanks for this post. My husband is a pilot and I read it to him. He found it fascinating.

Brook said...

Thank you for cluing me in to airports I should avoid. :) Great stories. Thank you.

Kindest regards,

Expats Again said...

Nope, none here. I have visited as many countries, but my only scary landing was in Thailand when I thought we'd have a head on collision with a golfer waiting to cross the runway to his next hole on the fairway. Like the others who have commented, these are two destinations I can live without--although they are extraordinarily beautiful; I just had scary landings that much.

Darlene said...

I have experienced one scarry landing, but compared to yours, mine was a day in the park. Enjoyed your post.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this and am glad I have nothing to compare! However the Charlottetown (PEI, Canada) airport is the cutest I've ever visited. The longest it ever took me to get home was 3 days. It should have been a 3 hour flight but I kept getting re-routed due to storms, which took me further from home. I ended up in NYC and got on a bus. It took all night but in the morning I was home.

Bangkok.Ian said...

Thanks for your kind comments.
Expats again:-
I had to laugh about the golfer wandering across the fairway in Thailand. I used to regularly play on that course at the old Don Muang airforce base. I can assure you the noise and backwash from a 747 flying just a few feet above your head is infinitely more terrifying than the passenger's point of view.
Somehow, the new airport at Suvarnabhumi is much less characterful.

Bells said...

No I think you win! I'll remember these next time I have a bumpy ride back into Sydney or some such - that's nothing compared to these!

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