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  • Writer's pictureEmmanuel G Escobar

130 Degrees of Freedom

We all must travel at some point in our lives. Whether that is short distance to and from school or work, or long distance like going on holiday. In fact, migration has been an important part of human evolution and enabled the spreading of genes—the principle of genetics. But travel, in which ever context, takes careful planning and assessment. While travel may pose some risks, the results are rewarding. Much like species that risk everything at a chance to mate, opening our travel networks, ensures the well-being and survival of our species.

In just over 100 years, air travel has provided access to places inaccessible by seeor land, but it was a luxury affordable to only the wealthiest. It was not until aircraft were made for a commercial market that air travel took off. In 1914, the first passenger flight operated between St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida as part of the Tony Jannus’ St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. It was a respectable 18 miles journey,but it only lasted three months. A short-lived victory, but it set the expectations for the future for long-range, transatlantic flights. As passenger demand increased, the airline industry responded with better and larger aircraft designs, making air travel less of a luxury and more of a necessity. And airports aren’t just hubs of passenger transportation; they are the access points that connect us to the rest of the world, that allow the transport of products, medical supplies and knowledge. So, how far are we willing to go to connect the world?

By now, you are probably thinking about when flying goes wrong, or based on recent events, when computer problems arise and aircrafts cannot even leave the ground. In part, we can dependent on massive computer servers to organise flight information, but computer problems like those recently experienced by British Airways, shows us the vulnerabilities that exist in even the most sophisticated of networks. But who is to blame here? So, okay, let’s blame technology this time. But what about the human factor? As much technology that you would like to have in the aviation industry, we still need pilots to fly the planes. Granted, it’s a difficult, but rewarding career, which gives you an office window 10,000 m above the ground. There are however numerous cases when pilot error results in accidents and fatalities, but that does not mean that less experienced pilots are more dangerous than more experienced captains. If we were to assume that, the aviation industry would not go anywhere because of a lack of pilots. The factor here being that human pilots can be trained and once qualified can gain experience and apply it in emergency scenarios. The ability to solve problems or overcome challenges depends more on experience and following protocol, than simply knowing what to do in a certain scenario.

Making the human, the better option to fly a plane. But what about technology, isn’t it great, especially in aviation? Sure! We can guide airplanes to land via remote control and direct planes to the gates by similar technology, we can even fly planes with autopilot, but these tools are not only not always available, but more importantly not always helpful. Let’s consider travel into some of the world’s most dangerous airports and see how taking a few risks strengthens our population.



First on the list in a small airstrip in Lukla, Nepal. Did I say airstrip? I meant airport. Tenzing–Hillary Airport or simply known as Lukla Airport is an important transportation hub in the mountains of Nepal, serving not only as an access point for food and supplies for the local village that rests just under 3,000 m from sea-level, but is also the entrance gate to Mount Everest for eager mountain climbers. Due to the very short runway size (under 550 m), slight runway inclination and obstructive terrain, the airport is limited to small single or dual turbine planes like Cessnas and De Havilland. Here, you either land or crash, as an exit strategy to landing, otherwise known as going-around, is not an option due to terrain on the other end of the runway.

Picture obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

However, this doesn’t stop the small, but strong aviation force of Nepal. Flights operate during the day and preferably in good weather. But since the climate is difficult to predict, pilots need to be ready for almost anything to land safely. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always dependent on how experienced a pilot is and accidents happen. Accidents in Lukla are severe, often resulting from poor visibility or inability to properly slow the aircraft down and in time during landing. But it’s success largely depends on experienced pilots that fly manually in and out of this remote village. And it’s just one example of how removing automation can help connect to villages like this and maintain the movement of people.


Okay, so maybe you live in a heavy populated city with strong economy that needs the transport of people and goods using large aircraft. But not to worry, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, there’s good sized airport that can handle arrivals and departures of commercial and freight aircraft. Unlike Lukla Airport, Toncontin International Airport has a descent sized runway at a respectable 2,160 m. There’s one problem, the airport in in the centre of the city and surrounded by mountains. This means that a straight-in approach pattern is not an option, instead planes perform a “hook approach”, where they circle the airport while decreasing in altitude until vectored to land. This is like a spiral landing aircraft often used when descending through hostile territory to avoid collision with anti-aircraft projectiles.

Picture obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

This landing method maintains momentum, speed and controlling the aircraft is easier while descending, but pilots most exercise caution when decreasing speed and monitor the rate of descent, so the plane lands within safety thresholds. Pilots must also consider aircraft mass, velocity and braking potential, not to mention slippery surfaces or wind shear and cross-winds that affect drag and lift . This requires careful planning before landing as well as good hand-eye coordination and experience.


But air travel is not always done for business reasons. Sometimes that exotic destination in the Caribbean seems like a good place to visit. Until last year, KLM operated a 747 flight between Schiphol, Netherlands and Princess Juliana International Airport in Saint Martin. Some aviation enthusiast gamers may recognise this from the default Caribbean Landing challenge in Microsoft FSX.

Picture obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Princess Juliana Airport is the main airport of the island, and a mere 4 m above sea level, making this airport the lowest in elevation on our list. It has a reasonable length single runway measuring 2,300 m and a straight-in approach over the sea. The airport itself wouldn’t be that tough to fly into, but since it operates large 4-turbine planes (or at least until 2016), it deserves a place on our list. Heavy planes carrying hundreds of passengers in the holiday mood along with their baggage land every day at the airport.

Picture obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

On one end, just before the runway threshold, dozens of tourists gather to feel the jet engines roar from a landing plane and at the opposite end, there’s a mountain that obstructs taking off. Low altitude go-arounds are especially dangerous and it can turn disastrous if the plane does not generate enough lift toclear the terrain. But don’t let this bother you, the take-off views are stupendous and worth the trip.


But it’s not always runway lengths, airport elevation, terrain or climate. Gibraltar International Airport has a runway length of 1,680 m, about 5 m above sea level. Just off the southern coast of the Spanish peninsula and stone’s throw away from Morocco, it has a strategical position, serving both military and public air traffic. But Gibraltar is densely packed and the airport is right in the middle of a busy motorway. We’ve already seen airports in the centre of the city, but this airport is special. Its single runway intersects a busy road, which means that planes and ground public traffic must coordinate to avoid collision. Perhaps this is one traffic light all cyclists will want to stop at.


Picture obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Maybe sunshine and beach aren’t your type of vacation? Lucky for you, you can travel into the ski resort of the French Alps, all you have to do is fight the fear when landing at Courchevel Airport. We’re back again in the mountains, back with another short runway measuring just over 530 m. I think there is a pattern here. Height and runway length don’t go together. But then again, it is very hard to build a runway on a mountain, unless you use the mountain slope in your design. Sure, taking into consideration a sloped runway will help the plans, but what about icy runways and braking? Adding in that there is no practical go-around procedure here either and the foggy, winter weather is unpredictable, this airport is worth mentioning on this list.


While in the region, let’s talk about the Madeira Airport at an altitude of 60 m built with a gracious 2,780 m runway. The airport was originally designed with two smaller runways, but as demand increased, the airport was re-designed. Instead of accommodating two larger runways, the main runway was extended. Only one problem, there wasn’t enough land to build the runway on.

Picture obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Through ingenuity and advanced engineering, half the runway was extended by building on a platform over the ocean bank supported by large beams. That took care of the problem, but like Gibraltar International Airport, Madeira Airport’s location brings dangerous cross-winds, which makes landing rather difficult.

What do we learn from this?

Aviation depends on finding the best trade-offs between operational costs and profit, while maintaining high passenger numbers, training staff and pilots and ensuring the safety of everyone on-board and on the ground. The aviation industry has its roots throughout the planet and over time pilots grow more experienced and airlines understand what the consumer needs and how much they can deliver. City planning has its role too and people’s appreciation or discontent of air travel needs to be heard as well. In the growing years of Heathrow Airport in West London, surrounding neighbourhoods would complain about the sound of planes and fight the council against runway extension planes. Unfortunately, the airline industry keeps growing and the need to meet such demands is still increasing.

Let’s face it, immigration is as human as learning to walk upright. It has helped our ancestors escape disease, build stronger relationships with neighbouring populations, enable trade and help experience other cultures, climates and foods, which in itself slowly, but steadily pushes human evolution forward.


The last airport that I would like to mention, which deserves an honourable mention, is Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong; it operated between 1954 and 1998. At midnight on June 6, 1998, 19 years ago, operations from Kai Tak were stopped and air traffic was moved to the new Hong Kong International Airport. Kai Tak earns the honourable mention on our list because it became a symbol of aviation serving Hong Kong. Built on reclaimed land, the airport boasted a 3,390 m runway, surrounded by high-rise buildings, making the approach one of the most dangerous of its time.

Picture obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Landing at Kai Tak took careful planning as well as experience and good timing, since alignment with the runway was done on short final, around 300 m from the ground, and two nautical miles from the runway threshold. To help pilots, a large orange and white checker-board could be seen on the approach path, as reminder of when to initiate the turn and line up with the runway. When executing the “Hong Kong Turn”, pilots would turn right for a heading of 130 degrees, while descending through 200 m. If done correctly, the plane would exit the manoeuvre at a height of just 40 m. On the ground, passing pedestrians could see the giant machines fly above. For residents of Hong Kong, the images of passing aircraft became all too common and part of life.

Picture obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Acknowledgements Special thanks to Dr Jack Crenshaw for his feedback and fact-checking. Pictures obtained under the Creative Commons Licence. Cover picture obtained from here.

#Airports #Aviation

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