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Many airports offer offer long, wide runways with little or no obstacles. These are what you might call sensibly designed airports. And then there are the others: airports surrounded by water and washed out by tides, or perched on a cliff's edge among the world's tallest mountains (see photo).
Grab your air-sickness bag — you may need it — as you click through the world's most dangerous airports.
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Courchevel International Airport, France
Perched atop a 6,588-foot-tall cliff amidst France's jagged Alps, Courchevel International Airport has earned a reputation as one of the world's most terrifying airports. The wind and snowy mountain weather create less-than-ideal landing conditions, as does a 1,700-foot-long runway that slants upward at a steep 18.5-percent grade. The situation is so potentially treacherous that pilots must obtain certification before being allowed to land at the airport.
Fernando Stankuns via Flickr3 of 14
Congonhas Airport, Brazil
Pilots flying into the Brazilian city of São Paulo face a special challenge: Congonhas Airport lies a mere five miles from the city center, giving rise to all manner of challenges. While the city's skyscrapers are far enough from the airfield to avoid posing immediate danger, pilots must navigate tricky arrival and departure routes to minimize noise, presenting challenges to both air traffic controllers and pilots.
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Svalbard Airport, Norway
Svalbard Airport ranks as the world's northernmost airport, and engineers designing the space used Norway's frigid conditions to their advantage, building it on a layer of permafrost. Alas, seasonal changes in temperature as well as overall warming in the region often cause the ground to shift and lead to the runway becoming uneven, forcing frequent maintenance and repaving.
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Sea Ice Runway, Antarctica
Three major airstrips service Antarctica, allowing for deliveries of much-needed supplies at McMurdo Station. Still, there are no paved runways in this land of snow and ice. Indeed, long swaths of ice are carefully smoothed and maintained for landing aircraft. While the Sea Ice Runway is long and wide enough to accommodate enormous aircraft, the danger lies in the ice's potential to crack under the weight of planes and their cargo, or the threat of a plane getting stuck in soft snow. As a result, the airfield is used in the spring — Antarctica's coldest season — and then typically closed in December when warmer temperatures weaken the ice.
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Matekane Air Strip, Lesotho
The mountainous African country of Lesotho has a serious dearth of flat spaces. In trying to avoid bumpy terrain, engineers built Matekane's runway on one of the country's few flat spots — which happens to lie at an altitude of 7,500 feet and ends at the edge of a perilous 2,000-foot-high cliff. The short runway measures a mere 1,300 feet. Often this distance isn't long enough for pilots to get airborne, so they do, in fact, plunge off the cliff, then take flight as the plane drops. Yup — terrifying.
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Gibraltar Airport, Spain
Drivers in the British territory of Gibraltar have an unusual concern to contend with: crossing paths with a jetliner on the street. In one of the world's more unusual examples of urban planning, Gibralter Airport's runway crosses the city's busiest road, Winston Churchill Avenue. When planes are taxiing down the runway, gates similar to those used at railroad crossings drop across the main drag, halting traffic.
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Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Netherlands Antilles
Cliffs plunge toward the sea at both ends of Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport's 1,300-foot runway on the tiny Caribbean island of Saba. As if that doesn't pose enough of a landing challenge, steep hills also flank the airport, creating updrafts and downdrafts. To be sure, no large aircraft are allowed; the space is used strictly by smaller, turbo-prop planes.
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Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Quito
A few factors contribute to Mariscal Sucre International Airport's status as one of the world's most terrifying. The airport is situated 9,000 feet above sea level, in the midst of mountainous, fog-prone terrain, and a mere three miles from Quito's city center. Luckily, passengers and pilots won't have to contend with flying into Mariscal for much longer — a new airport in a safer location is scheduled to open in Quito in 2013.
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Gustaf III Airport, St. Bart's
Planes landing at Gustaf III Airport on the island of St. Bart's must do so on a short airstrip — in this case, one that ends directly on a beach typically filled with sunbathers. Besides that dangerous inconvenience, the airport is flanked by steep hills, adding difficulty to the descent.
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Madeira International Airport, Portugal
Located on a small Portuguese island, Madeira International Airport gained notoriety for its short, 5,000-foot-long runway. After a plane careened off of it in 1977, killing 131 people, the runway was extended to 9,000 feet long, with the construction of a bridge supported by more than 200 pillars. Still, the airport's proximity to the mountains and sea often yields turbulence and rough weather conditions, making the airport a tricky one for pilots.
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Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Nepal
A key gateway to Mt. Everest, Tenzing-Hillary Airport is in a class by itself. Located some 9,000 feet above sea level, the airport's runway is a brief 1,500 feet long, with a 12-degree slope. To keep things interesting (or terrifying, depending on your perspective), there's a mountain at one end of the airstrip and a 3,200-foot drop at the other.
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Barra Airport, Scotland
At Barra Airport on Barra Island in Scotland, flights take off and land on the beach — the actual beach. As if landing on sand isn't tricky enough, pilots also have to contend with another factor — the tide. Come high tide, one of the runways is completely submerged.
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Paro Airport, Bhutan
While passengers flying into Bhutan's Paro Airport may find the Himalayan peaks surrounding the airfield to be breathtaking, for pilots, the Himalayas pose serious challenges. The mountain peaks can reach 18,000 feet, and planes have to wind past dozens of houses dotting the mountainsides before they reach the runway. The airport is considered so dangerous that pilots must be certified to land here, and few are.