Freaky airplane landing videos

My new obsession: Cockpit landing videos taken during approaches into technically challenging airports. 

Yesterday, Phillip Bump posted a link on Twitter to a detailed rant, written by a pilot, about why pilots don't like to land at (or take off from) Washington DC's Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. That post is pretty  interesting, especially if you've ever wondered—as I had, while waiting on the tarmac at National last fall—how large jets manage land and take off from that airport while simultaneously avoiding all the no-fly zones that are very, very close by. (Hint: It is difficult, and occasionally terrifying.) But the money shot is at the end, where you can watch a video that will show you the pilot's eye view of a National Airport landing approach. 

Turns out, there is a whole, beautiful genre of YouTube videos devoted to this kind of thing. The video above is one of my favorites, showing the approach in to Hong Kong's old Kai Tak airport. Closed in 1998, Kai Tak had one of the most challenging landing approaches in the world. It involved flying at heights of less than 1000 feet over the top of crowded neighborhoods and close to nearby skyscrapers, then executing a sharp right-hand turn, while continuing to lose elevation. Oh, and, the turn had to be done without the help of the Instrument Landing System. Instead, pilots made the turn based on a checkerboard marker painted on the side of a hill. And the runway ended in water. And the wind was often less than favorable to this kind of maneuvering. Fun! 

The video above is a bit long, but if you fast forward to about 3:00 minutes in, you'll see the best parts. By that point, you can see the checkerboard marker off to the left and get a feel for just how low these planes had to be. Although, frankly, I'm having a hard time deciding which is freakier: What these landing looked like from the sky, or what they looked like from the ground

Video Link 



  1. My favorite is landing at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field.  You can’t beat the convenience of landing right in the middle of Downtown.

    I’ve stood at the top of the parking garage you can see right before the plane reaches the runway. 

  2. I don’t know which is worse: that a certain airport is named after a slaveholder, or that the congress tried to name it after a war criminal as well as that slaveholder. Perhaps I should simply call it Airport, instead of National Airport, because I do not support death squads, slavery, or nationalism.

  3. Great article, but his premise of “this dangerous airport is still operating because politician snobs refuse to take the metro to Dulles” was ridiculous. Dulles is 25 miles from the city, and the Metro line doesn’t open until 2013. It’s not exactly an easily accessible airport for any of us.

  4. First time I flew into Washington, sometime in the Eighties, my window seat was on the port side looking out onto the Mall. As we zigzagged down the river it seemed like I was eye-level with the Washington Monument. After this wild approach with a heavy stop into the seat belt, we deplaned. The pilot and crew were standing at the door saying goodbyes and thank yous.

    “That’s a hell of a ride, nice job.” I said.

    “Thanks”, said the pilot, with a look of genuine relief and a nervous laugh.

    I’ve never forgotten that ride in or the subsequent flight out. When we left we followed the river out. Once above the cloud base, we weaved our way between huge thunderheads full of lightening, all lit by a beautiful setting sun.

    1. I’ve been in a plane both landing and taking off from that airport .. it was interesting.  Also had one of the pilots shout “I’m never flying this airline again!” (in Spanish).  That was fun.

  5. I rode into Kai Tak with no warning whatsoever of what it would be like. I was busy being all amazed at being in Asia, then “Man, those skyscrapers are close! We’re headed right for the ocean! WE’RE GONNA DIE!”

  6. Had an interesting landing flying into Oakland. Normal approach would be: go down the bay a ways, gentle 180 degree turn, normal approach and landing. We were headed south just east of the bay, and at about Alameda, we hung a sharp right, while descending, then another sharp right, and a short descent before we touched down. It was a little thrilling, but weird. Maybe there was a gap in the traffic and they cleared the pilot for a quick landing. While I prefer a “normal” approach, I’d rather have a quick one over flying around in a pattern killing time at 10K feet because the pattern is full.

  7. The southeast Alaska landings – Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan – are fairly thrilling, as is the southern (“Lemon Creek”) takeoff at Juneau.

  8. Kai Tak was memorable even if you were in economy, especially if sitting on the right. Suddenly after slowly descending like at every other airport the plane would lurch right at an angle no 747 does anywhere else in the world, and you were looking straight out at, and rapidly getting closer to, streets and tower blocks tens of feet away. Amazingly there were almost no accidents. A plane slid off the runway once into the ditch in very bad weather and someone died of a heart attack, but overall it was very safe.

  9. When they renamed National Airport to Reagan Airport, I thought it was incredibly arrogant and cynical, given his history with the Air Traffic Controller’s Union. Now I see it is very apt: tiny, antiquated, dangerous and oblivious to change.

  10. The airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is supposed to be pretty dangerous.

    I actually have a friend who was in a plane crash there (four people killed, I think) when his flight had problems on takeoff. My wife also has flown in there and said it was terrifying. Rumor has it there is wreckage from earlier crashes just kind of pushed off to the side of the runway. Nice thing to see as you board your flight.

    1. When I landed there in 2010 I had no idea it was such a crazy airport. Thankfully I looked it up online AFTER I was back home!

  11. My two current favorites:
    – St. Bart’s (you need a special endorsement from the French FAA to be allowed to fly in since the runway is so short and the approach so steep. over and down a mountain)
    – Paro Airport in the Himalayas (only 8 pilots are currently certified to  fly in, since the approach is gnarly and the runway is actually shorter than the field elevation)

    A note on Kai Tak: when flying in and around that part of the world a few years ago, I noticed that the approach is still published to the airport. It’s still useable for emergency aircraft.

    And this video is of the visual approach, which is much easier (!) than the actual instrument approach. I have never seen an approach use that many navaids or have so many weird switchover points between them.

  12. While the pilot in question is entitled to his opinion, and I will defer to his opinion on the avaition issues, here is one from a passenger.

    I’ve been flying in and out of DCA (from BOS) for > 30 years.  The airport clearly has its idocyncracies – I would describe RWY 1 as ‘pointed at the White House’ more than ‘pointed at the Mall’, but unless you are flying in and out of DEN every day with miles of flat plains on approach, as a pilot I’m sure there is an oddball issue to deal with.  Someone upthread mentioned the parking garage at SAN – even my home airport of BOS has Winthrop with its water tower on one side, and the freight docks AND LNG shipping channel on the other.

    From a passenger’s point of view, there is really no comparison between DCA, IAD, and BWI.  The Metro to IAD won’t be done for several years yet, and even with its renovations the security lines at IAD are epic.  Departures in the afternoon are regularly delayed 20-30 minutes or more as a line of jumbo jets (with associated 2+ minute wait times) depart for Europe.  I’ve gone to meetings in Reston (right outside the airport) and driven back to DCA rather than use IAD.  Security lines are typically 5 minutes or less, so I can leave a meeting in downtown DC or Arlington at 4:30pm, and comfortably made a 5:30 departure.   I’m probably back at home in Boston before most people in DC have even made it to the suburbs out by IAD or BWI.  Clearly there is a considerable value proposition there.

  13. Landing, schmanding.  Try taking off from Tenzing-Hillary Airport at Lukla.  The runway is 1,500 feet long with a 12% grade.  When you get to the end, you’re in mid-air with a 2,000 foot drop below you.  It’s conventional to turn the engines on after you’re in the air.

      1. Upon seeing this, the first people I thought of who might be in the cockpit were Gene Ryack or Billy Covington.

    1. Awesome, thanks!

      But you got carried away in the last sentence; how do you think airplanes move and accelerate on the runway?

      1. Gravity.  The 12% grade over 1,500 feet gets it moving pretty damn fast.

        I don’t think that they use much brake on landings, either.

        1. Nah, airplanes (especially the seriously small planes that would typically take off there) need their engines to move on the ground, i.e. get on the freaking runway in the first place. Maybe not full-throttle, even idling at times, but still, that’s how they move.

          1. Doesn’t look like there’s much of anywhere to move an aircraft to. I’m guessing normal procedure is to land, despatch the passengers, load up some more, turn around and fly out again.

      1. That makes me want to go back to Khumbu.  I have to say that the runway at Lukla was less terrifying than the bathroom.  Instead of a hole in the floor, there was a board missing, and the poo-pile was above floor level.

  14. As a frequent flyer into DCA I always loved hearing the gasps of the newbies when taking the wing-over so close to the water.

  15. In addition to St Barts – which I haven’t been to – I’d add the airport on Saba  (just south of St. Maarten) as one of the trickiest.  Its one of the shortest commercial runways (400m) and involves a mountain on the incoming side and cliff on the outgoing side.  Plenty of youtube videos searching for “Saba landing”
    Like this one: 

  16. 1) I was lucky(?) enough to experience the old HK airport approach and it was truly disturbing, but fun. It’s not often that a pilot points the plane at a hill 50 seconds before landing. Does anyone know why they didn’t just land the other direction on the old HK runway? Seems like that would have been a sensible idea.

    2) If you ever have a chance to take acid on a plane do it. Best sunrise ever.

    1. If you have to abort on final approach, you’d rather not be pointing at rising terrain and a mountain range.

    2. There was also the matter of takeoffs, which would be much more difficult/dangerous northwards towards the Kowloon hills. With planes taking off to the south it made much more sense for planes to land from the north. I think it could be reversed when winds blew strongly from the north, but this happened rarely.

  17. This is sort of a tangential comment, but I flew into Heathrow a few weeks ago on a 777, an ANZ flight from the States, and we got put into a LONG holding pattern making circles around the airport.  We had been making laps for around 15 minutes when my seatmate by the window taps me on the shoulder and tells me to look out the window. I look out, searching for I know not what, and only seeing the dreary skies of London. “No, down there!” he clarifies. I look down and in a moment of horror realize there’s a 747 flying beneath us perpendicular, not more than 100 feet below. Way less than the approved 1000 feet distance. The pilot then suddenly banks hard towards it and we fall into line behind the 747. I have to imagine there were more than a few curse words thrown around in the cockpit.

  18. Aren’t they fun? I send them to my flight attendant friends and tell each one they are the bravest people  I know. But I do hate wading through the video game clips. 

  19. This is one of my favourites:
    from ground:
    (note that the cameraman is standing on the mountainshoulder that you have to not hit while doing the turn from downwind to final)

    From cockpit:
    Again, notice that bloody mountain you have to avoid on the turn

    The landing there is fun on anything from a tiny two seater up to to the larger planes.
    As soon as you get up to a 10 seat aircraft such as the Piper PA31 (which has been used quite a bit in Iceland) then you’re coming in at around 110-120kts, which makes the whole thing  quite fun ;D All pilots I know (myself included) enjoy this kind of stuff.

  20. What I can´t figure out is what they are using to record these videos.

    We are all told to ‘Turn off all electronic equipment during take off and landing as it may interfere with aircraft systems’ yet here is someone, patently, running digital video camera in the cockpit in contravention to the rules imposed on the rest of us schmucks. Admittedly, most of the equipment in actually under the floor in First Class ( the video was a British 747 – Assume BA but could be Virgin) but if there are any “sensitive instruments” then the cockpit is where they all terminate.

    A digital camera, especially one with a tape transport – this had to be as Kai Shek has been closed for a few years – would be chock full of oscillators etc which could generate “interference”.

    One set of rules for the rest of us methinks.

    1. I was wondering if someone was going to mention the elephant in the room – who left their electronics device turned on?! Well, at least I’m the second person to say as much. Maybe all cameras are exempt, or if they aren’t, perhaps they will soon need to clarify that only FILM cameras (including 8mm & 16mm film) are allowed in use during take offs and landings!

  21. During our approach to Dulles (not National) on Turkish Air last week, everyone’s individual monitor switched over to the cockpit view. Terrifying! The yawing of the plane and the constant small pilot corrections, largely imperceptible to the passengers, were now exaggerated. Unlike!

  22. if you like aviation PLEASE check out my wingsauce.blogspot . there are tons of videos and articles on alllll types of aviation. just gettting started but already over 100 posts

  23. @ wt29 There are differing rules w.r.t. electronics on aircraft and inconsistencies between all of them. For the most part, pilots can use whatever they want subject to FCC rules and the rules as determined by the air carrier (if it’s a commercial flight)

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