Standing 6,853ft (2,010 metres) high and enveloped by the French Alps, the highest tarmacked airplane runway in Europe is found in the ski resort of Courchevel, but very few people can ever expect to land there.
Measuring just 1,762ft (537 metres), it is too short to safely accommodate most types of aircraft and commercially operated planes are prohibited from flying there. Though Courchevel 1850 attracts some of the world’s wealthiest travellers – marvel, as we did within five minutes of landing, at lunchtime partygoers spraying Balthazars of Moët & Chandon into the crowds at the Cap Horn restaurant for proof – even those who charter a private jet will be denied access. You need to be on a turbo-prop plane that is privately owned and which is occupied during that transit by the owner or one of his or her friends or family members.
Travelling to the newly opened Six Sense Residences Courchevel, I was able to land at Courchevel altiport (a mountainside aerodrome for small aircraft) because I was aboard a Jetfly plane. The company offers shares of its aircraft to private purchasers, who then pay a subscription to fly on its planes; handily it enabled us to circumvent the red tape that makes landing in Courchevel so complicated. Our arrival into Courchevel was the most exciting plane landing I have ever experienced, and by some margin.
Flying on a six-passenger turboprop Pilatus PC12 from London’s Denham airport to Courchevel, our journey saw us drift over France at 27,000ft and even incorporated visits to the cockpit for remarkable 180-degree views of the countryside below. After clearing customs at Chambery airport, about 15 minutes from our final destination, we were able to continue to Courchevel.
Rising from the foot of the Alps and then weaving through them is thrilling. Within minutes of leaving Chambery we were curling through jagged mountain passes dense with pine and coated in snow. We ascended further, circling dainty wooden chalets and miniscule Alpine villages, and then soaring above the first ski lifts and colonies of speeding skiers leaving freshly carved incisions in the shimmering powder below.
It’s an incredibly gripping spectacle, not least because we were caught completely off-guard by how close we would fly to the mountains – it didn’t seem entirely sensible. In recognition of the potential peril that could strike pilots attempting such a flight, only those with what is termed a “Qualification of Sight” are permitted to land at Courchevel altiport. Fewer than 100 pilots have this licence today, and all of Jetfly’s pilots receive special training to ensure they’re fully capable of flying in challenging mountain settings such as this. Should inclement conditions prevail, groups may have to abandon their flight to Courchevel entirely and land at a ground-level airport instead. (And if you're a nervous flier perhaps avoid watching the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, where a calamitous Courchevel take-off provides plenty of drama, before you fly here.)
As for the landing itself, with the runway so short it’s over before you know it. A slope at its tip functions to slow arriving aircraft and to speed up departing planes. After a gentle descent, we made bump-free contact with the tarmac and were out of the aircraft fewer than five minutes later. Following a brief pause for photos by the plane – de rigueur for everyone who’s lucky enough to land here – we stepped directly into the Six Senses cars that awaited us and were on our way.
- Source: The Telegraph Photo: Telegraph.co.uk