Proficient Pilot

Oh, the places he's been!

April 1, 2004

Barry Schiff has visited a lot of airports in more than 50 years of flying.

Not long ago I received an e-mail from a young pilot who enjoyed building time by flying to as many different airports as he could. He was proud to claim that he had landed at more than 300 airports.

That made me wonder how many airports I had logged. Certainly, I thought, it had to have been more than a thousand. After a review of my logbook, I arrived at only 687 airports in 42 states and 40 countries, far fewer than I had guessed.

Reading that list brought back wonderful memories. And some sad ones, too. Many of those airports no longer exist, victims of the bulldozer and urban sprawl. Many others are not airports at all. These include farmers' fields, a feedlot in Arizona, the infield of the Riverside Speedway, and a public beach that became a temporary haven following an engine failure.

Operating in and out of such unusual places can be challenging, but so can landing at or taking off from some conventional airports. Pilots who land at La Paz, Bolivia, for example, might have to leave their airplanes behind. With an elevation of 13,310 feet, the density altitude on a warm day can be above 17,000 feet, higher than the service ceilings of many general aviation airplanes. If you do land there, be sure to bring along a portable oxygen bottle; you probably will need it for the subsequent walk-around inspection (especially if climbing on a wing is necessary). There are some higher airports in the Himalayas, but I have not had the pleasure of passing out at any of them.

Indigenous wildlife often shapes the personality of an airport. Although most pilots have been warned about deer, antelope, and cows moseying on the runway, those who fly overseas might have to compete for space with kangaroos, hyenas, dogs, monkeys, and holy cows.

This reminds me of two of the most hilarious notams I ever saw, one in New Zealand and the other in Africa. Both warned of poor braking action, the first because of sheep on the grass runway and the second because of worms.

At Salalah, Oman, pilots are on the alert for "large predatory birds" (condors or jet fighters?). At Comox, British Columbia, bird activity on the airport is particularly intense when ceilings are low. The birds ground themselves during foul weather, which is more than can be said about some pilots. Also, be careful when flying into Bahrain on the Persian Gulf. Sandpipers that migrate from Russia (probably without clearance) roost on the airport and often fly back and forth across the runway in such great numbers that they show on radar.

Be careful when interpreting weather reports at Entebbe, Uganda. The ceiling could refer to conventional clouds or clouds of swarming insects that drift over the airport from adjacent Lake Victoria. (Clogged pitot tubes are not uncommon there.)

When approaching Maracaibo, Venezuela, pilots are cautioned not to overfly nearby oil fields because a crash landing there could ignite more than local excitement. At other airports, pilots are admonished not to overfly certain nearby cities, zoos, royal palaces, game reserves, and historical sites at low altitude.

Topography plays a role in defining the personality of many airports and explains why approaches into Innsbruck, Austria, Hong Kong's now-closed Kai Tak Airport, and many others are so challenging. But missed approaches can be difficult, too. Pilots approaching Cape Newenham and Utopia Creek, both in Alaska, are advised that "successful go-arounds are improbable." At Cape Lisburne, Alaska, surface winds in excess of only 10 knots produce severe turbulence on final approach, and at Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, pilots always encounter "peculiar" winds because of a nearby volcano.

A pilot's problems usually are over when the runway is in sight following an instrument approach, but not always. Imagine approaching to land at Eskilstuna, Sweden, and discovering that a road — complete with traffic — crosses the runway. Be careful at Lake Minchumina, Alaska. Winter snow is removed only once a week to facilitate mail delivery. The airport at Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia has a runway dedicated for use only by those who need to make a gear-up landing.

At Point Barrow, Alaska, the runway consists of 5,000 feet of stainless-steel planking. To prevent the surface from becoming slick during rain and snow, the center third of the length is coated with antiskid paint. Imagine braking heavily with one wheel on wet steel and the other on antiskid paint. You might get a sudden and panoramic view that you had not expected.

Most pilots should avoid making an instrument approach to Kenmore Air Harbor in Washington unless they want to land on water. Like some others in Maine and Louisiana, this approach leads only to a seaplane base. Shoot an approach to Nortrym and you will find yourself with only an oil rig in the North Sea upon which to land.

At Tarbes airport in France, aircraft with "one engine inoperative" are prohibited from landing. Must the pilot of a Beechcraft Bonanza with a failed engine pull up and go elsewhere? Pilots approaching Barton Airport in England are told not to overfly the nearby cemetery. (Who there would be disturbed?) The cemetery at Yurimaguas, Peru, is on the airport, presumably for the convenience of those who fail to survive their own carelessness.

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