The 10 most spectacular airport approaches from the cockpit

Jan 16, 2021

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As an airline pilot, I’m fortunate to have one of the best office views in the world. Looking down from 43,000 feet gives you an appreciation of just how vast some countries are and how densely populated some cities have become.

Traversing the expanses of northern Canada or the far reaches of Russia, you can go hours without seeing any signs of human inhabitation. Crossing the Atlantic to South America, the water just seems to go on forever.

However, it’s when making the approach to land that some of the best views are on offer. Curving in through mountain valleys or picking out famous landmarks, it’s sometimes a real honour to be treated to some of these stunning vistas.

In my 15 years of flying, these are my top 10. I’ve also recommended which side of the aircraft you should try and get a window seat to get the best (okay, second best after the flight deck) view in the house.

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A word on runways and approaches

The approach an aircraft makes into an airport depends mainly on the direction from which the flight is coming and also on what ATC’s needs are at the time. Most flights arriving into Heathrow from the far east will come in over the North Sea and be directed in by ATC over north London.

However, if there are many arrivals from that direction at once, ATC may direct some flights to come in from the south. There’s no hard and fast rule what will happen, so as pilots, we are always prepared for change.

The same goes for the runway in use. For performance reasons, we prefer to land and takeoff into the wind. As a result, ATC at the airport will select the runway in use primarily on the wind direction. Once again, this can change at short notice.

Runways around the world have a numerical designator depending on the magnetic compass heading they face. For example, a runway facing east would be runway 09 and the other end, obviously facing west, would be runway 27. If there are two runways of the same heading, like at London Heathrow, they would be 09L/09R and 27L/27R.

10. Newark Liberty International, New York (EWR)

Window seat: Right-hand side

Kind of cheating with this one, as this is technically on departure, so it comes in at No. 10. However, the views flying out of Newark and routing initially to the north are too good not to be mentioned.

For the most part, Newark uses the two parallel runways 05L/05R and 22L/22R. When the wind is out of the north, runway 05L is used for departure and it’s this one that gives the best views.

The runways aren’t the longest, so it tends to be a fairly high-powered takeoff, rocketing off into the evening sky. Shortly after takeoff, when at around 1,500 feet, we’ll often get a right-hand turn towards Upper Manhattan.

A few seconds later we’re treated to the most incredible view over Central Park, Midtown New York and all the way to downtown. To the far side of the city, you can see the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge and JFK Airport in the distance. Without a doubt, the best view on departure anywhere in the world.

Read more: A pilot’s perspective on the ‘toxic fume events’ controversy

Looking out across Central Park and the rest of Manhattan. (Photo by Charlie Page/TPG)

9. San Francisco International (SFO)

Window seat: Left-hand side

Alcatraz Island, the Bay and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco has some of the most easily recognisable landmarks in the world. Flying in from the north, the route brings us in over the Sonoma and Napa Valley vineyards, giving us some wonderful waypoint names such as MRRLO, MLBEC and LEGGS.

From here, we coast out over the sea slightly, making a slight left turn and flying parallel to the Golden Gate Bridge at around 12,000 feet. Not only does this give great views of the bridge, but it also enables you to spot Alcatraz, downtown San Francisco and the numerous piers jutting out into the bay.

For an added bonus, try and grab a seat on the right-hand side for departure. The departure route is much the same as the arrival but at a much lower altitude and closer to the bridge.

Views on the arrival into San Francisco International Airport. (Photo by urbancow/Getty Images)

8. Miami International (MIA)

Window seat: Left-hand side

Ah, Miami. Sun, sea and, err, stunning approaches. Depending on the route across the Atlantic, the initial approach into Miami takes us over the Bahamas before starting the descent. These sandy reefs look great from 38,000 feet but the real treat comes later on.

The arrival route takes us down the coast, giving you an appreciation of just how populated the coastline is. Houses, hotels and apartments line the waterfront all the way from Palm Beach, through Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, all the way down to Miami itself.

When the wind is coming from the west and landing on runway 27, the approach takes us directly over the famous Venetian Islands, as if we were flying straight down Venetian Way. As we are directly overhead, this view can only be seen from the flight deck, but the cabin windows give great views, too.

Whilst window seats on the right give good views flying down the coast, sitting on the left gives the best views of South Beach as you fly over at around 2,500 feet and then the cruise terminals and downtown just a few moments later.

Read more: Jump and slide!’ — 11 instructions you need to follow to survive an emergency

The arrival into Miami passing over South Beach. (Photo by Charlie Page/TPG)

7. Dubai International (DXB)

Window seat: Right-hand side

Dubai Airport is at its busiest in the small hours of the morning, but if you find yourself on a flight from the north that lands during daylight, you’re in for a treat. Irrespective of which runway you land on, there are great views to be had across the city.

The approach to 30L/R is slightly better though as the aircraft is at a higher altitude as it flies downwind, parallel to the runway. Early on in the approach, you’ll be able to see down the coast to the Palm Jumeriah jutting out into the sea and the distinctive Burj al Arab hotel.

As the coast passes behind, the skyscrapers of the centre of the city come into view, including the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

The view of The Palm and the Burj al Arab on the approach into Dubai. (Photo by Charlie Page/TPG)

6. Corfu (CFU)

Window seat: Left-hand side

The Greek island of Corfu is 230 miles northwest of Athens and the airport itself is nestled beneath some serious hills. Even though they are only 2,000 feet high, their proximity to the airport and the way that they arc round under the approach path stops us from flying a straight-in approach.

As a result, we must fly in at an angle towards the runway, lining up with the runway at around 700 feet above the water. To make it even more dramatic, there’s a hotel built into the side of the hill just by the runway. This gives a unique perspective of looking up at people by the pool just before we touch down.

Read more: All you need to know about the pre-flight ‘walk-around’

(Photo by Kateryna Mashkevych/Shutterstock)

5. Dubrovnik (DBV)

Window seat: Left-hand side

The stunning walled city of Dubrovnik overlooks the azure waters of the Adriatic Sea. Looking down on this area from 38,000 feet is inspiring, the whitetails of hundreds of boats darting between the islands which litter the Dalmatian Coast.

However, from lower down on the approach into Dubrovnik, the aircraft glides slowly past the city, so close you can almost peer into the tiny windows of the houses and buildings.

If you’re lucky, you may even be treated to the circling approach. This takes the aircraft past the airfield, turning back between two hills before touching down on the runway.

Dubrovnik airport is set in a valley. (Photo by Christian Kramer/The Points Guy)

4. Los Angeles International (LAX)

Window seat: Right-hand side

I love flying to LA — there’s always such a buzz on the flight amongst the passengers and more often than not, there’ll be a famous face or two sitting at the front. However, I love the approach because it gives you a real appreciation of just how wide and sprawling the city is. Cutting through the San Bernadino mountains past the Big Bear ski resort, the basin opens up to buildings as far as the eye can see.

As you get closer to the airport, Downtown LA comes into view with the Hollywood Hills beyond. Then, just before touchdown is the stunning SoFi stadium, the new home of the LA Rams and LA Chargers. Depending which runway you’re landing on, a window seat on the right will either give you a great view of the stadium, or you could end up being papped yourself by the spotters waiting at the famous In-n-Out burger joint.

The famous In-n-Out burger next to the threshold of runway 24R at LAX. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

3. Gibraltar (GIB)

Window seat: Right-hand side

If you’ve ever been to Gibraltar, you’ll know what a spectacular place it is. The 1,400-foot rock dominates the peninsula, with the airport sitting directly below it.

The land is so narrow that the runway sticks out into the bay at the western end and ends abruptly at the beach at the other end. When landing towards the east, the approach takes you around the back of the rock, lining up with the runway passing over sailboats and yachts below. A word of caution, though: When it’s windy this approach can get bumpy!

Read more: How pilots change their takeoff preparation when it snows

The Rock of Gibraltar overlooks the runway. (Photo by Charlie Page/TPG)

2. Innsbruck (INN)

Window seat: Right-hand side

There is no bigger thrill than flying down a snowy valley, with 10,000-foot mountains towering above you on both sides before passing low over the town and touching down on a snowy runway. Landing into Innsbruck, you get all of these.

Depending on the runway in use and the wind strength and direction, the arrival can start at either end of the valley which runs roughly east/west. The most straightforward approach starts at the eastern end of the valley and lands in over the town. If the easterly runway is in use, some approaches start in the western valley, snaking its way around corners before lining up with the runway.

However, the most spectacular approach and the most challenging, but exciting, for pilots is the visual approach after arriving from the east. Just before flying over the town, we break off the approach to the left, heading towards the Brenner Pass. At this point, we can be rocked by strong turbulence as wind spills out of the Pass before we make a right-hand turn, flying low over the side of the valley.

From here, we are looking for the spire of the church in the village of Axams ahead of us, our visual reference point to start the turn onto final approach. Looking up to our left, we can see skiers coming down the hill above us. As soon as we fly over the church, we start a tight 180-degree turn, flying as slow as possible to keep the turn tight enough to line up with the runway facing back from the way we came. Absolutely exhilarating!

(Photo by byhafes via Twenty20)

1. London Heathrow (LHR)

Window seat: Right-hand side

There are very few airports in the world where the approach brings you directly over the centre of the city, but London Heathrow is one of them. Depending on the origin of your flight, you’ll either make the initial approach over north or south London.

From here, traffic is directed into a single stream of aircraft towards the landing runway. If this is towards the west, as it tends to be around 80% of the time, get ready to spot more famous landmarks than you can shake a Union Flag at.

If the flight is from the north and the aircraft is in just the right spot, you’ll be a party to my favourite airborne view in the world. As the pilots make the right hand turn to line up with the runway, the wing dips to reveal the modern skyscrapers of the City nestled around the history of the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.

There’s so much more in this short glimpse so make sure you have your camera ready as it doesn’t last long. The photos, though, will last a lifetime. Enjoy!

London, in all its glory, on the approach into Heathrow. (Photo by Daniel Ross/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

One of the best perks of the job is enjoying some of the spectacular views we get from the flight deck. Some approaches bring us in over the centre of the city while others have us weaving between mountains and over churches. No matter how many times I’ve flown to the airports I’ve mentioned, I never tire of the views.

I’ve flown into Heathrow more than 1,000 times and not only does this approach make you appreciate the city even more, but after a long transatlantic flight, it’s also the perfect way to make sure you realise you’re home.

Featured photo by Artem Vorobiev/Getty Images 

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