A night landing on the moving deck of an aircraft carrier has always been regarded as the most difficult landing approach for aviators. We think the Toncontín Airport in Honduras might actually beat that.
Toncontín International Airport, located 6 km (3.72 miles) from downtown Tegucigalpa, Honduras, has long been considered to be one of the most difficult, dangerous landings for any large commercial airliner thanks in part to its unusual mountainous location. Add to that an extremely short runway (runway 02), one of the world's shortest, that's merely 6,112 feet in length (LAX features roughly 3,000 additional feet for large aircraft) and you've got a recipe for armrest-death-gripping, butt-clenching, nervous excitement.
To be more accurate, the actual landing distance of runway 02 is only 5442 feet with an approach that requires pilots to utilize everything their training didn't prepare them for. The mountainous terrain surrounding the small airport forces an approach that's anything but head on, resulting in a fast decent and a sharp turn prior to lining up with the runway. Frequent gusts of wind complicate matters even further, requiring quick yaw adjustments to the vertical stabilizer's rudder, pitch adjustments to the horizontal stabilizer's elevators and roll adjustments to the wing's ailerons in order to angle the aircraft for a sane final approach.
Check out the video to the left to see the entire approach from the cockpit of a Boeing 737 which includes the pilot's sincere feelings about the whole ordeal once he's safely taxiing off the runway.
The largest aircraft allowed to land at Toncontín are Boeing 757s, but there have been times when larger aircraft have landed, such as a DC-8 passenger airliner and this U.S. Air Force Boeing (McDonnell Douglas) C-17 Globemaster III. We're sure military pilots are much better suited for tricky landings than their commercial counterparts, but anyone attempting to delicately drop a (roughly) 115 ton bird out of the sky has bigger gonads than us.
Not every pilot that's challenged Toncontín International Airport's tricky setup has lived to tell the tale. The latest, on May 30, 2008, involved an Airbus A320, approaching from San Salvador, that came in a bit too hot and overran the runway resulting in 5 casualties. After reviewing the recordings from the aircraft's black box, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) determined that the fault of the accident was human error and not the previously thought poor weather conditions. He landed a half mile beyond the landing marks as well as in the opposite direction from what the flight tower had directed.
This latest accident prompted Honduran President, Manuel Zelaya, to eliminate all international flights from Toncontín and force all large birds to land at the Soto Cano Air Base, a joint Honduras and U.S. military base near Comayagua, while the construction of a 984 ft extension of runway was completed. That extension brought the total length of runway 02 to 7,096 ft and was completed in May of this year.
Will the extension make the landing any easier? By our cool, calm and collect calculations — No. But what it will do is give pilots a little bit of extra breathing room and a little more time for them to change their pants before making the embarrassing trek across the tarmac.
Know of a crazier, more difficult airport to land a big bird at? Share it with us in the comments and we'll investigate for a future Planelopnik installment.