Maho Beach is not a particularly beautiful beach. It is located directly on a road, the strip of sand is narrow. And yet it is regularly full. Of people raising their arms in the air and filming in the sky. They're planespotters.
There is hardly any other place in the world where passenger planes are likely to thunder so low over the heads of onlookers as they approach for landing as on this stretch of coast, where the runway begins just behind a nearby fence. The distance to the giant birds is only 20 to 25 meters. In the beach bar there are beers, cocktails and the arrival times of the planes at Princess Juliana International Airport are posted.
Incidentally, the larger the type of aircraft, the deeper the approach. Due to the short runway, heavy machines have to touch down immediately - so that the braking distance is sufficient. Like in a storm, hats, beach towels and cocktail cups keep flying away.
Until 2016, KLM even landed here with jumbo jets. The currently largest aircraft type on Sint Maarten is the Airbus A330, flown by Air France and KLM. A Condor connection is under discussion for the winter season. Then the slightly larger Boeing B767 will probably fly.
Denali is 6,190 meters high and is better known as North America's highest mountain by its former name Mount McKinley. You can actually fly to it at an altitude of almost 3000 meters, because there is a glacier runway there. Five companies are licensed to land on a snowfield just below Denali, each up to four times a day.
Translated, Denali means: high mountain, up to minus 60 degrees are not uncommon up there. “Mountaineers calculate 17 to 21 days. I'll be up in 45 minutes," say the pilots. For the "flightseeing" sightseeing flights with glacier landing, single-engine light aircraft are used, which land on skids up there for half-hour stops. The fun costs from around 330 euros.
Training to become a pilot is highly complex and the demands of the job are high. But even with a commercial pilot's license, you can't simply land in Rio de Janeiro - you need special training for Aeroporto Santos Dumont. The runway is only around 1300 meters long.
There are two main flight paths through a wonderful mixture of mountains and bays, city and beach: either you fly very close to the Sugar Loaf, the well-known 400-meter rock on the Guanabara Bay, or along the local mountain Corcovado with the monumental statue of Christ and after that always very close to the sea. When taking off, passenger planes often head directly for Sugarloaf Mountain, depending on the location, and then turn off.
Aeroporto Internacional Cristiano Ronaldo is the only airport in Europe named after a soccer player (Ronaldo was born in Madeira). It is mostly built on stilts. Concrete pillars, three meters thick and up to 120 meters long, were partly rammed into the seabed. The pillars protrude up to 60 meters out of the ground. A masterpiece of engineering.
The airport's location on a cliff-side cliff is spectacular, but also dangerous due to the down winds, which is why pilots flying to Madeira require a special permit. The once very short runway has long since been extended to more than two kilometers, so that all types of aircraft can now land on Madeira. Nevertheless, window seat passengers get goosebumps when they see the parade of stilts on approach.
Everyone knows a railway barrier: it closes, the train drives through, the barrier opens again. This is exactly the principle that applies to the runway at Gibraltar Airport. The difference is that there is no train, but an airplane takes off or lands.
Because Gibraltar, a British overseas territory since 1704 and still claimed by Spain today, is small at just 6.5 square kilometers, the runway crosses the only road connection to Spain, Winston Churchill Avenue.
Such an intersection of road and runway with a barrier is unique for an international airport. The best view of this crossing is from the Affenfelsen, where people regularly gather for plane spotting. From Gibraltar there are only connections to Great Britain and nearby Morocco.
One usually imagines an airfield as being at ground level. However, at Courchevel in the French Alps, the runway has an 18.6 percent incline to add stopping power to the fan guns. Because it is very short at 537 meters. Larger aircraft are not allowed on the Altiport International de Courchevel at 2008 meters, which is surrounded by ski slopes.
However, the incline also means that the pilot can no longer go-around, i.e. the landing cannot be aborted. During the approach, the aircraft hover just a few meters above a forest before the pilot has to touch down on the first few meters of the runway in order to come to a standstill in time. Thrill factor: The runway ends on a slope.
Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, Nepal, requires similarly adventurous flight maneuvers as in Courchevel. There in the Himalayas at an altitude of 2846 meters, the runway is also very short at 530 meters, the gradient is 12 percent, at the end it drops 600 meters. Lukla is considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world.
The approach here is correspondingly adventurous. It can only be landed uphill and taken off downhill, which means that takeoffs and landings in opposite directions are sometimes a few minutes apart.
Around 15,000 take-offs and landings a year are handled at the airport in the middle of the high mountains, and there is a reason for this: it serves many mountaineers as a starting point for tours to Mount Everest.
The country of Gross National Happiness has the most unclimbed seven-thousanders in the world, ascent forbidden. Because peaks belong solely to the gods, but they are disturbed a little every day when the Boeing machines of the state line Drukair glide down from an altitude of 10,000 meters into the deep Paro valley, where Paro International Airport is located at 2236 meters, the only international airport of the Himalayan kingdom.
Approaching above the snow-capped peaks and then descending at eye level with the mountains is almost unreal. The approach is very demanding for the pilots and wide-screen cinema for the passengers.
When flying from Delhi to Paro, you also fly past Mount Everest, which is then only about a kilometer below the plane.
Eastern Beach on the east coast of Fraser Island is part of the public road network and serves as a kind of island highway for off-road vehicles - unmarked, but with a speed limit of 80 kilometers per hour.
At the same time, Eastern Beach serves as a runway for small propeller planes. There is no tower, and no one takes care of barriers during take-offs or landings. The coexistence of the various means of transport apparently works according to the motto: There is enough space for everyone.
Eastern Beach is also called 75 Mile Beach because of its length. The approach to the largest sand island in the world could have come from an adventure film: on the right the roaring Pacific, on the left lush green rain forest and in between the firm golden sand of Eastern Beach.
The water is turquoise blue and the view from the plane window offers nothing other than what is probably the most beautiful lagoon in the world. Aitutaki's airstrip is almost completely surrounded by sea. Only Air Rarotonga flies out of the main island of Rarotonga using propeller planes, which offer better visibility than jet planes. If you want more of it, book an Aitutaki sightseeing flight with a Cessna (30 minutes, around 80 euros).
Until 1951, only seaplanes landed on Aitutaki - in the middle of the lagoon. Then the first coral rock runway was built, which is still part of the runway enlarged in 2003.
Aitutaki is more than 16,000 kilometers as the crow flies from Frankfurt am Main. There are no non-stop flights, you have to change trains at least twice. But there are a few more landing approaches - albeit not as spectacular as on the Cook Islands.
This article was first published in July 2022.