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Mountaintop Altiport: How a Tiny, Sloping Runway Provides Access to a Legendary Ski Resort

Ask a group of pilots to describe the most challenging airports they’ve ever experienced, and you’ll hear stories about airports around the world that present a wide variety of unique characteristics. From airports built on plateaus like Telluride, Colorado, to others on tiny scraps of land jutting out into the ocean like Saba in the Caribbean, short runways and unusual geography can make approaches and departures far more challenging than everyday airports.

Perched on the side of a mountain the Courchevel Altiport provides one-way-in, one-way out access to an adjacent ski resort in the French Alps. Photo: Courchevel Altiport

One of the world’s most challenging and unique airports is one relatively few pilots have flown into, primarily because of the extreme layout and the specialized training required to negotiate it. Known as an “altiport” due to its location in mountainous terrain and its dramatically sloped runway, Courchevel (ICAO code LFLJ) is located near Chambéry in the French Alps and services the adjacent Courchevel Méribel ski resort. 

Courchevel’s location among several mountains and extreme terrain requires specific flight procedures to minimize risk.>>

When the ski resort opened in 1946, the only access involved a challenging and time-consuming overland route. Well-to-do vacationers only tolerated this for about 15 years before demanding air access. In 1961, some enterprising local pilots worked with the resort director to construct the altiport to improve accessibility. 

A deHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter delivers passengers and their baggage to the ski resort. Photo: Courchevel Altiport

Building a functional airport on the side of a mountain is inherently a difficult task, and the local terrain made it doubly so at Courchevel. As the only available plot of land was positioned on a literal mountainside, the first runway was short and steep. Even today, after being extended, it is only 984 feet (300 meters) long and has an average slope of 15º. This is several times steeper than the steepest standard runways in regular use around the world, and it introduced a multitude of challenges to pilots. 

Takeoffs could only occur downhill, for example, and landings could only occur uphill. Additionally, visual cues are massively different from standard runways, and a pilot lacking the required specialized training would likely miscalculate the approach with potentially disastrous consequences. Add harsh winter mountaintop weather conditions to the equation, and Courchevel quickly became a place with which only the sharpest and most thoroughly trained pilots could safely contend.

Initially, the altiport was somewhat rudimentary. With a dirt runway and limited facilities for aircraft and passengers, it was accessible only by small, rugged utility aircraft. But as the popularity of the ski resort expanded, the demand for a more modern and more usable airport followed suit.

A North American/Rockwell OV-10 Bronco begins its takeoff roll down the steeply-sloped runway. After applying takeoff power, pilots are committed to the takeoff early due to the difficulty of stopping during an aborted downhill takeoff. Photo: Martin Putz

By the 1970s, the runway had been widened, paved, and realigned to accept larger aircraft. The arrival of the 1992 Olympic Winter Games demanded further development to accommodate the largest aircraft ever to service Courchevel, the de Havilland Canada DHC-7 Dash-7. A 44,000-pound (19,958 kg) four-engine turboprop airliner capable of carrying up to 54 passengers, the Dash-7 was optimized for short takeoff and landing (STOL) operations and was perhaps the only aircraft in existence that could transport so many people into such a uniquely-demanding airport.

Today, helicopters make up the majority of traffic into Courchevel, but smaller fixed-wing aircraft continue to visit as well. In addition to private aircraft such as the Pilatus PC-12, a local flight school operates a number of small piston aircraft into the altiport for training purposes. 

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