You might have heard of Madeira, an archipelago in the North Atlantic ocean that’s one of two autonomous regions of Portugal. The Madeiran capital is mainly known for the historic city of Funchal, a popular resort destination, the birthplace of soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, oh, and home to one of the most treacherous runways on Earth.
Yesterday, British Airways posted a fantastic video showing the perspective from the cockpit on approach to Funchal. Only 20 captains with British Airways are qualified to operate into Madeira Airport (FNC), in which they use such high-tech waypoints, including spotting a banana shed (there’s an Arrested Development joke in there somewhere). No instrument landing system (ILS) approach exists at Funchal, so pilots must navigate the challenging terrain manually. The destination is particularly treacherous due to strong and highly variable Atlantic winds, mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. As evidenced by the videos below, approaches are often missed and go-arounds are frequent.
The British Airways pilot mentions that the runway has been extended “on stilts,” which initially made me decide that I absolutely never want to go there. After further research, I learned that the extension has actually been constructed on 180 sturdy concrete pillars, each standing 230 feet above the rocky, windswept coastline. It’s kind of insane when you look at it from the side.
Lengthening the runway (originally just 5,249 feet long) actually took place in two phases. The first was a 656-foot span completed in 1986, followed by a 3,219-foot extension completed in 2000. The current runway is 9,124 feet long and is able to accommodate widebody airliners such as the Boeing 747 and Airbus A330.
The land underneath the runway extension is actually accessible and is used for roadways, parking lots, a skateboard park and even multi-use sports courts that overlook the ocean. The project won the 2004 Outstanding Structure Award (considered the Oscars of structural engineering) by the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering, but was actually spurred by a terrible crash many years prior.
An album illustrating more of the facilities beneath the runway is available here.
On November 19, 1977, TAP Portugal Flight 425 (a Boeing 727-282 Advanced aircraft) overshot the original runway, crashed onto the beach and exploded. Of the 164 passengers and crew aboard, 33 survived. As a result of the accident (notably, the only accident in TAP Portugal’s history), TAP Portugal discontinued 727-200 service to Funchal, replacing the aircraft with the shorter 727-100 on the route.
Today, Madeira Airport is served by a variety of carriers to many destinations throughout Europe. By all accounts, Madeira is a lovely place to visit, as more than one million tourists do every year. Yet despite the runway improvements, it remains one of the world’s most treacherous approaches.
Photo credits: Top shot - Richard Bartz/Wikicommons, Side shot - Jarvin/Wikicommons - Bottom shot - russavia/Wikicommons