Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free membership trial today! Click here

Not your typical airports

Some airports are considered “special qualification” airports. Each airline has their own guidelines on how they are handled, and some are more restrictive than others. Jackson Hole, Wyoming (JAC) is one of the most common.

Flight Training Online

The airport is shoe-horned into a valley in very high terrain. In the winter, snow is present nearly every day, and the taxiway is very narrow. It is common for the runway to only be partially clear and for the taxiway and ramp to be covered. In the summer, the challenge is high density altitude combined with a relatively short runway of 6,300 feet at an elevation of 6,400 feet. Deviating for summer storms is limited by the terrain, and turbulence can be teeth-rattling. Each airline also has special single-engine approach and go-around procedures to ensure terrain clearance.

Because of its designation and challenges, airlines require captains to make their first flight into JAC with an airport-qualified check pilot; this may also be required if the pilot has been there on one fleet type, but transitions to another that also serves the airport. It is also an airport that some airlines require a pilot to fly to every so many months or risk having to be re-qualified with another check pilot. Fortunately, there is no such thing as a seasonal qualification.

Other airports that fall into the category of special qualification are Eagle, Colorado (EGE); Bogota, Colombia (BOG); and Guatemala City, Guatemala (GUA). The old Quito, Ecuador airport was also extremely challenging because of its elevation, and the old Mexico City airport was a challenge because of the surrounding terrain at high elevation combined with infamously thick smog and haze that made seeing the runway a challenge. Each airline can designate their own airports based on internal analysis and the fleet being used to serve them. When I was based in Guam, the Micronesian Islands had their own set of rules and training requirements.

Sometimes the simulator can be used to introduce pilots to special airports, but there is nothing like actually going into such a field in the airplane for the first time. For all the good simulators do, they do a lousy job of realistically portraying thermals and certain weather conditions.

The most famous airport requiring qualification is the old Kai Tek airport that served Hong Kong, with its checkerboard on a hill to mark the point of a turn to final. I wish I had had the opportunity to experience it myself, especially in a 747.

“Special qual” airports are designated as such for a reason. When you get one, read everything the company provides, and study the nuances. The line between safe and unsafe may be thinner than you realize. Be on your “A game,” and don’t take anything for granted. Most importantly, don’t just assume that because you are in a jet that you can throw caution to the wind. In fact, it’s often because you are in a jet that you can’t.

Chip Wright

Chip Wright is an airline pilot and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.

Related Articles