I've been doing a lot of flying lately and it never fails to amaze me how uneventful flying within the continental U.S. is these days. Considering that we put our bodies in a metal tube and accelerate them to several hundred miles per hour before landing them with great precision in a different area code, it's remarkable that the modern airliner, airport, and airline pilot have turned this into a procedure one can easily sleep through. I almost feel cheated on occasion, after a particularly tranquil flight. What the hell, airline – I was supposed to feel the thrill of a near-death experience!

Maybe I should take a flight into the lovely Caribbean island of Saba. Not a great place to overshoot the runway, guys.

Or maybe you like the sensation of praying that you've picked up sufficient airspeed before plunging off the side of a mountain at Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Nepal (at 9500 feet). Or you could land there, realizing that one end of the runway is a giant mountain. So it's like landing on an aircraft carrier, but without the option of a go-around.

Perhaps flying an airborne obstacle course (including a last second 50-degree turn) to land in the bottom of a steep valley is more your thing – Tegucigalpa, Honduras might be a neat destination for you. If you have a spare set of clean undergarments handy, try watching the cockpit view of landing at this death trap. Read about what's involved in the landing here.

Maybe that's all too exotic and you want the simple pleasure of hair-raising crosswinds at a major airport. Try Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport for the unique experience of landing sideways.

If you're anything like me, these videos will help you appreciate your next 1:25 into Newark just a little bit more.

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36 Responses to “NPF: FEAR OF FLYING”

  1. jazzbumpa Says:

    I haven't flown in years, and have absolutely no urge to ever do it again, even from flat-as-a-pancake DTW.

    Happy Friday!

  2. Prudence Says:

    I flew into the old Kai Tak quite a few times while living there– and that vid doesn't even show how close you get to the high rise buildings on final approach. Now the old Kai Tak has been replaced with the even more hilariously named Chep Lap Kok- and the wind sheer there is nothing to titter at either.

  3. Bill Says:

    If you want to try flying an airborne obstacle course, with a last minute 50 degree turn, just land at Reagan.

    Check out the jethead blog.

  4. Major Kong Says:

    I don't need to. I've flown into DCA many times and it never gets any easier.

    I feel like I'm playing "You bet your license" every time I do it.

  5. Brent Says:

    If you want to live, try taking a AN-28 between Dushanbe and Khorog. At times you are hundreds of yards away from the peaks of the Pamirs.

    See the link for visual proof:

  6. Brent Says:

    If you want to feel alive, try taking a AN-28 between Dushanbe and Khorog. At times you are hundreds of yards away from the peaks of the Pamirs.

    See the link for visual proof:

  7. Major Kong Says:

    If you want to feel alive, try taking a AN-28…….anywhere.

  8. Major Kong Says:

    Bogota was pretty sporty. 8300 feet elevation and mostly surrounded by mountains. Everybody feeds in an out through one spot.

    Not the place you'd want to lose an engine.

    Landing the Airbus 300 at Burbank was fun too. 5800 feet of runway with a fence at the end.

    Tomorrow morning I'll have the pleasure of landing at Huntington WV. They pretty much leveled the top of a mountain and built the runway on it.

  9. draftmama Says:

    I flew into Tegucigalpa in 1971 en route from Miami to Belize (then British Honduras). We came out from very thick low cloud and it took three tries to get in the right place – second go around I swear the wing tip was brushing the trees. On finally landing everyone cheered! San Pedro Sula in Honduras was no picnic either.

  10. what the karp?!? Says:

    I've always loved planes and jets, stuff that flies. I've never really wanted to go on a tropical vacation… with one exception. I'd love to go to Saint Martin. the runway just about starts at the ocean, and planes taking off have to take off at full thrust so they can climb over the mountain at the other end of the runway if an engine goes out.

  11. Major Kong Says:

    Anywhere in South America or Central America can be pretty sporty.

    There is some seriously mountainous terrain down there.

    Air traffic control is pretty sparse, you're often out of radar coverage and the controllers will usually let you do whatever you want – regardless of whether or not it's a good idea.

    You want to fly straight into a mountain gringo? Sure, you're the boss.

    The controllers speak English, some better than others, but it's mostly limited to "canned" phrases like "Cleared for takeoff". Ask for anything out of the ordinary and you're on your own.

  12. gipper Says:

    this is the mother of all crosswind landings:

    shit couldnt have been any closer.

  13. c u n d gulag Says:

    I hate single-engine prop planes.
    I'm terrified of having to fly in one of those things. I turned down a great paying job one time, because I'd have had to fly these jumper-flights all over the NE as part of it.

    Having said that, one of the most exhilerating and beautiful flights I ever had was in a military version of one, which sat 10-12 people. My best friends (now late) brother was in charge if IT for the military bases in Hawaii, and on my trip out there, he, my friend, and I, got on one of those on a trip from Oahu to the big island of Hawaii.

    To see those beautiful islands, flying low around them, and over that gorgeous and dangerous water, is something that I'll never forget.

    I swore that if I got to Hilo and back to Honolulu safely, I'd never fly in one of those damn things ever again.
    And I've been good to my word.

    Also too – the last time I flew at all was in 2005, and, with what they've done with security, and shoe-checks, and now the newer BS, I don't miss it one bit.
    And if I never fly again, I won't be at all sad or upset!

  14. Scott Supak Says:

    America does have it's tricky places to land.

    I was landing in Jackson Hole, WY once, in the summer. James Woods was sitting a few rows behind me. Jackson is, if I"m remembering correctly, one of the highest altitude runways in America, and it's short. We landed and were still going quite fast when the pilot had to turn, because there was no more runway. We could all feel the plane go up on two sets of wheels, leaning up quite a bit to the point we thought we might flip over, and then the other set of wheels came slamming down, jolting us all quite a bit. After all the gasps had quieted down, Woods said, quite loudly, "It's a good thing there wasn't any ice or we'd have all wound up at the Cowboy bar!'

    The Cowboy bar is in downtown Jackson Hole, a long way from the runway…

    Anyway, that is one scary place to land.

    Also, going through "the saddle" on Maui–in between Haleakala and the West Maui Mountains from Oahu–is one scary ride as well. Always a strong cross wind. I've been on many a flight doing that trick where people lose their cookies from the rough ride.

  15. Mike Says:

    Don't forget about Windy Wellington……

  16. Elle Says:

    I tend to average two flights a week across the year. (I've counted, this past couple of years, because my carbon footprint is starting to make me feel queasy.) Most of them are completely uneventful, but I flew in a horrific storm last year, which resulted in a landing that wasn't quite as bad as that Lufthansa wingstrike Gipper linked to above, but did make the national news.

    My worst flight ever, though, was Geneva to London. It felt like being in a toy shaken by a child. I'm a regular flyer on another route that features teeny tiny planes, and the kind of chop that frequently results in other passengers vomiting, but this was a whole new kind of rough. I came within about thirty seconds of asking the (complete stranger) guy next to me if I could hold his hand.

  17. Nick Says:

    I spent three days in the Houston airport one time due to a tropical storm. All of the hotels were booked up by the time we landed, and we couldn't get around by car or cab, so we basically could not leave the airport. The restaurants ran out of food toward the beginning of day 2, at which point we all had to switch to those crappy box sandwich/chips/apple/soda lunches three times a day, served by airline and airport employees who, like us, were sleeping in the terminal with the little blankets and tiny pillows distributed from the planes. It didn't help that I was not yet legally old enough to go to the airport bar.

    I'll land anyfuckingwhere in the world as long as I never have to spend three days in an airport again.

  18. Quaestor Says:

    Sedona, AZ (KSEZ) is another one of those "aircraft carrier" airports, built on top of a mesa.

  19. atthebench Says:

    It is always fun to land somewhere (e.g. San Pedro, Belize) they allow kids on bicycles and dogs to chase the planes down the runway!

    And if you haven't treated yourself, make some time to read Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery which describes his life as an airmail pilot in the 1920's. It is amazing to read what these pilots did to get the mail over the Andes and so on, although I suspect it was their love of flying rather than their love of the postal system that kept them going.

  20. Major Kong Says:

    Back when I was on the 727, we hit some really bad turbulence going into Casper Wyoming. The thing was shaking so bad I could hardly read the instruments.

    After we landed, one of our Cessna Caravan "feeders" came in right behind us. When the pilot came on the radio she sounded like she was about to get out and kiss the ground.

    I can only imagine what it was like in that little thing, because it was bad enough where I was sitting.

  21. Middle Seaman Says:

    My vote is on National also known as DCA or, in scary way, Reagan. It's best to take off your shoes to get ready for the Potomac. In Europe, Athens requires a dive by most pilot while most other major airports have great runways.

  22. mothra Says:

    Los Alamos, NM also has a lovely runway on top of a mesa. At over 7,000 ft, too. Whee!

    But my own town, Albq. can be quite entertaining to land in when there's weather over the mountains. It's always fun to see visitors' faces get pale when the airplane starts bouncing around over the mountains.

  23. baldheadeddork Says:

    I had a job refueling private and corporate aircraft at Scottsdale (Az) Muni in the early 90's. One of my friends there was an air evac pilot who flew a Turbo Commander 690, a small twin-engine turbo prop. (And a really great airplane.)

    One night I was hanging out at his apartment when he got a call to fly an expecting woman from the White Mountain Apache reservation to Phoenix. He asked if I wanted to ride along and I said sure.

    We took off and headed east. It was a moonless night, in a few minutes the lights of metro Phoenix were behind us and the only thing you could see outside the cockpit were the stars over head. Everything below the horizon was a perfect, infinite black. I knew it wasn't a void, somewhere below were the Superstition mountains. And this was when moving map GPS displays were just beginning to appear in airliners and large business jets. Mike could read the old steamer-style gauges against the maps clipped to the yoke to know exactly where we and (maybe more importantly) where the mountain peaks were, but I was clueless. If the pilot had a heart attack, there was damn little chance I was going to save myself.

    After 40 minutes or so he interrupted what we had been talking about, flipped the channel on the radio and clicked the microphone two or three times. Out of the blackness below a beacon and runway lights appeared. Unmanned airports like Whiteriver don't leave the lights on all night, when you get close you have to set the radio to a special frequency and send a short series of clicks to turn them on.

    We flew past the airport as Mike dropped the flaps and the landing gear, then rolled over hard to the left and began a sharp descent. When we came out of the turn the runway was filling the windshield quickly. In much less than a minute after the lights went on we were on the ground. We taxied up under the one streetlight within a half mile of the airport.

    The patient was still en route to the airport so we stood outside on the tarmac and had a cigarette. Then Mike got kind of an evil grin. "Put your hand up so it blocks that street light," he said. I did, and with the airport lights out again there was just an eclipse-like halo of light around my hand. "Now look up." I didn't know what he was trying to get me to see, but I kept craning my head back until, somewhere past 45 degrees, I saw a jagged, uneven border across the horizon. Above it were thousands and thousands of stars, below it was black. It – the mountains – surrounded the airport. I didn't have to crane back so far in one direction, but on two sides of the airport I had to look almost straight up to see the stars.

    Being eloquent in these situations, I think I said something like "Holy Fuck." He told me how high the mountains reached around the airport, and tonight was easy (the landing was one of the smoothest I've ever experienced) but when the weather was bad this was really scary.

    I loved it. It's one of my favorite experiences ever.

  24. LK Says:

    Ah, Lukla. That was great fun.

    Two things the video doesn't show well enough: the runway is slanted 15 degrees. It helps shorten both landing and take-off (and completely necessary given the terrain), but it still makes for a more scary in-flight experience (both coming in and going out).
    The other is that you can't see the runway coming in until about 30 seconds before you need to make a sharp right turn to get in. Since it's the same valley and same route both going in and going out, that turn is sharper (much sharper) going in, which makes the passengers feel like a drunk pilot is going to slam them into the mountain (especially those on the left side of the plane, who can't see the runway until it's practically underfoot).

  25. queenrandom Says:

    I've done Peretola on two Alitalias (landing and take off) in bad conditions. You get some good G's. This guy turns but we went straight over the mountain.

  26. Buckyblue Says:

    For fright try landing, or taking off in Fairbanks, Alaska in January. We were taking off at night to fly back to Anchorage, got up to take off speed and slammed on the brakes. All the pilot said was that it was closer than he felt comfortable telling us. Finally took off, beautiful Northern Lights.

  27. jharp Says:

    I too did the the Kai Tak quite a few times and Prudence is right. The buildings were amazingly close. I swear you could see television sets turned on inside of apartments.

    And the new airport is awesome. You can check your bags at the train station and take the train straight to the airport from both Central and Tsimshatsui. Amazingly convenient and never a delay.

    Loved Hong Kong. The dining. The people. Happy Valley Race track. Good times for me.

  28. Quaestor Says:

    A retired British Airways pilot once told me about taking off from Nairobi (high altitude) on a really hot day in a 747. High altitude + hot day means high density altitude, which means a long takeoff roll. He passed 200 knots and was still on the ground, afraid the tires would start burning up. (He made it out okay.)

  29. Green Eagle Says:

    I've flown into and out of Saba in a DeHavilland Twin Otter a couple of times. It's an experience. Coming in, the right wing is about 20 feet from a solid wall of rock, and the runway is so short that at the end, the pilot has to make a hard 90 degree turn to avoid going off the edge. Taking off, the pilot goes so far to one end of the runway that everything back of the wings is hanging over a cliff, and revs the engine until the plane feels like it is going to fall apart, then zooms down the runway, barely lifting off at the end.

  30. gracie Says:

    ** these videos will help you appreciate your next 1:25 into Newark just a little bit more.**

    The real thrill at Newark is to be riding in a commuter bus on the Turnpike when a jet comes in just a little bit too low (swear: could feel the landing gear run along the bus roof) or takes off just a little too slow and gets ensnared in the chain-link fence at the Turnpike's edge.

  31. wetcasements Says:

    Puerto Princesa, Philippines.

    Not the shortest runway by any means, but a hard 90 degree right turn in a 737 right before landing was interesting, to say the least.

  32. Mo Says:

    Juneau, Alaska. Flight I was on last week, tense dead white-knuckle silence in the cabin during the approach, then a rousing cheer when the cockpit crew successfully landed the thing.

    I'm guessing there aren't many airports where the computer weather system has the acronym "JAWS" – and, thanks to wind massive shears, mountains, fog, and low visibility, deserves it.

    Although, on the bright side, no major crashes with a couple hundred dead since 1972.

  33. Trapclap Says:

    These bad runway stories make me wonder if this is proof that humans are stupid or ballsy as fuck. Gonna go with ballsy.

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