10 of the World’s Most Challenging Destinations to Land a (Small) Plane

Aircraft, and their licences, come in all shapes and sizes – from small micro-lights and gliders, to Cessna 150’s, 172’s and 182’s, all the way to instrument licences, commercial licences and airline transport qualifications that allow you to fly the biggest of jets.

But what if we ignore all this? What if we look at the sheer excitement and pleasure of flying – of being able to choose where you go, who you go with and how you arrive? This is in essence the pinnacle of what everyone who travels wants.

So here are ten exotic locations where the majority of pilots would dream of flying to test their skills in the most challenging and exciting conditions available.

#1: Peru

Cessna 206 Light Aircraft in Lima, Peru
© Alfonso Cárdenas Ortega

As far as remote flying goes, South America is among the toughest places in the world to be a pilot. Airlines and pilots have to be kings of improvisation – as this latest news of an emergency flight’s runway being lit by motorcycles proves. Thousands of tourists take to the sky in light aircraft every year to see the spectacular ancient Nazca Lines from air – and many operators can be less than trustworthy when it comes to maintenance and safety. As with everything when travelling, if you’re going to do this, go with a reputable company.

#2: Alaska

As fans of Flying Wild Alaska will know, this area can be more than treacherous when it comes to light aircraft. The runways and dirt strips here are often far too short for larger planes to go in and out of, so small Cessnas and Beechcraft are used – often battling extreme weather for the sake of what in many cases is the only link to the outside world.

#3: Okavango Delta (Botswana)

This a popular spot for wealthy safari travellers who want to ”˜escape’ to the bush in exclusive luxury safari resorts. And what better way to arrive at your resort than by bush plane? A number of companies in the area operate small Cessnas – but frequently battle with tropical storms, dust clouds, and extreme turbulence along the way.

#4: Barra Island (Scotland)


Arriving at Barra Airport ©

The island of Barra is the only place in the world where a scheduled passenger flight lands on the beach … only, of course, when the tide is out. If that wasn’t enough, the airline operates old De Havilland Twin Otters which are hard planes to fly at the best of times in some challenging North Atlantic weather. Low clouds, no visibility, wind and rain is often the order of the day here … however the beauty of the island and the dramatic approach more than makes up for it.

#5: Medical Flying (Australia)

If there was any sort of flying that demanded the very best from pilots, it’s Medevac flying in the bush. Australia’s size often rules out land transport for patients in critical condition. So small aircraft do the job with stretchers and medical supplies fitted. Planes fly hundreds of miles from civilisation – if one has engine trouble and goes down – it’s likely they won’t be found.

#6: The Russian Wilderness

A catalogue of recent incidents and accidents from Russia has meant that the country now rates as one of the world’s most dangerous places to fly. Small, old aircraft and classic jets such as Yak’s, Tupolev’s and Antonov’s are slowly being phased out.

However with travel being a necessity in such a large country and the World Cup on the horizon, it’s a move that’s certainly needed. Light aircraft are found in abundance with private flyers offering a variety of lessons; however the bulk of the commercial pilot intake comes from the military.

#7: Nepal

Lukla Airport, Nepal
Lukla Airport, Nepal

The famous Lukla airport in Nepal has served thousands of tourists travelling to Mount Everest’s base camp. It’s also caused many tragedies and fatalities, as the sheer cliff faces, sloping runway and deadly downdrafts that surround it catch out many small aircraft. However, if you do love small aircraft and happen to be a bit of an adrenaline junkie – The Lukla Airport Experience is certainly not to be missed.

#8: Brazil + the Jungle

Criminal activity in this part of South America is rife, and it therefore makes it a relatively dangerous place to travel by light aircraft. Many private planes have somewhat dubious origins to say the least, and the vast expanse of dangerous jungle that goes by the name of the Amazon makes escaping from crashes or engine failures literally a remote proposition.

#9: Saba (Dutch Antilles)

Saba Airport (Dutch Antilles)
Saba Airport (Dutch Antilles)

One of the world’s smallest runways, perched on top of a tiny island, with sheer drops at either end. It may be a scary experience, but it’s the best bit of land available on the whole of the Dutch Antilles – the original name for this tiny island was once thought to derive from the Arawak Indian work for ”˜rock’.

#10: Matekane (Lesotho)

Lesotho is a mountainous monarchy surrounded on all sides by South Africa. It’s hot, dry climate also boasts spectacular scenery – and the runway at Matekane is right in the middle of it all. Finding enough air to pass over the wings at 7,700 feet is hard enough, but in addition, because of the sheer drop and high mountains, planes often have to ”˜fall’ off the edge of the runway, point the nose down to gain speed and then pull up to climb out. This airport is reserved for the most rugged of planes and boldest of pilots.

So there we have ten exotic and spectacular locations to take a small aircraft. You might have to be considered brave, even foolish, but there’s no denying that flying here offers some of the most exhilarating if not dangerous flying there is to be had. Getting to some of these places is hard, but that’s why the remote airports and small planes that exist there do what they do – they are the only lifeline, and simply a way of life for the local inhabitants.

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