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Would You Land At Catalina Island's Challenging 'Airport In The Sky'?

With cliffs on either end, this island's mountaintop airport has a series of unique challenges. Would you fly here?

The Airport

Built in 1941, Catalina Island is home to one of the most unique runways in the world. The Buffalo Springs Airport (KAVX) was constructed by Philip Wrigley Jr. when he leveled two adjacent hilltops and filled the canyon between them. The island is just 23 miles off the coast of Southern California, just southwest of Los Angeles. The island is best known for its scuba diving, preservation areas, and hiking.

The airport is located at the center, and top, of Catalina Island at 1,602 feet above sea level. Its single, 3,000 X 60 foot runway is called the "airport in the sky" for good reason. On either end, there are dramatic cliffs rolling down Catalina island into the Pacific Ocean below. While the airport is primarily used for general aviation, with a $30 landing fee, there are daily freight flights to and from the mainland.

Kyle Harmon

Runway Illusions

There is a 2.1% downslope beginning a few hundred feet after the approach markings for Runway 04. Because of this, Runway 22 is preferred for landing with an upslope. Pilots cannot see aircraft at the opposite end of the runway due to this slope. The runway is also only 60 feet wide, which is slightly more narrow than typical runways.

When you combine the slope of the runway, narrow width, and cliffs on either end, pilots are set up for a series of visual illusions.

Updraft And Downdraft Concerns

When landing on either runway with a strong headwind, you should be aware of intense downdrafts caused by the surrounding terrain and steep cliffs. Prepare for downdrafts by increasing your approach speed and be ready to go-around.

Wikimedia

New Runway

In May this year, the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy Seabees completed a massive project in redoing Catalina's only runway. Before the renovation, the runway was in rough shape to the point where many pilots would avoid the airport altogether. The new strip is all concrete and according to AOPA, "the new runway is expected to last 75 to 100 years."

AOPA / Catalina Conservancy

Would you fly into Catalina? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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