Inside Madeira: The Airport Built On Stilts

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The beautiful Portuguese Island of Madeira boasts an airport with one of the world’s most challenging approaches. Not only that, but the airport’s runway is built on stilts, which makes it pretty unique, but also a little scary.

Madeira Airport
Christiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport. Photo: Getty Images

Christiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport

Madeira sits in the Atlantic Ocean around 400 km (249 miles) north of the Canary Islands, and 1,000 km (621 miles) southwest of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. Madeira International Airport was controversially renamed after one of the island’s most famous sons – footballer Christiano Ronaldo.

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The airport is located 13.2 km (8.2 miles) northeast of the island capital of Funchal, Ronaldo’s birthplace, and it is Portugal’s fourth busiest airport. What makes the airport renowned is its peculiarly perilous approach for even the most experienced aircraft pilots. It is rated as the ninth most dangerous airport in the world and the third most dangerous in Europe.

The island suffers from strong and extremely variable Atlantic winds, and the airport features mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. One end, the runway terminates in a cliff with a motorway running below it, while the other end is on a platform built on stilts with a long drop off at the end. The runway sits at 230 feet above the coastline.

While looking like stilts, the runway supports are actually comprised of 180 sturdy concrete pillars, which is somewhat more reassuring.

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Madeira Airport
Madeira Airport’s runway sits on 180 stilts. Photo: Jan Helebrant via Flickr

Madeira Airport’s perilous approach

The topography of the airport’s surrounding make for a difficult landing and pilots have to undergo additional training to land an aircraft there. No instrument landing system (ILS) is available for landing on runway 05. Instead, pilots need to make a visual approach that involves flying around the airport before making a 150-degree right-hand turn and lining up for a very short approach. If the conditions allow, aircraft can land on runway 23, which has a clearer approach and ILS is available.

On November 19, 1977, TAP Air Portugal experienced the only fatal accident in its history at Madeira Airport. TAP flight 425, operated by a Boeing 727, was flying to the island from Brussels via Lisbon. With strong winds and heavy rain causing poor visibility, flight TP-425 made two unsuccessful attempts to land.

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The captain decided to make one final landing attempt before diverting to Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. The aircraft overshot the runway, crashed onto the shore below and exploded, killing 131 of the 164 people onboard.

TAP Airbus A319
TAP had its only fatal accident at Madeira Airport. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

Lengthening of Madeira Airport’s runway

Madeira Airport was opened in July 1964 and was infamous for its short 1,600m (5,250 feet) runway. In 1995, eight years after the TAP crash, the runway was extended by 200m (656 feet). The runway was further extended in 2000 to 2,781m (9,124 feet). As building up from the shoreline wasn’t a realistic option, the runway was built on a platform extending over the ocean.

The innovative building project was rewarded with the 2004 Outstanding Structure Award from the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering.

Would you be happy to land at one of the world’s most dangerous airports? Let us know in the comments below.

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