Horror airport where passengers pray to survive
HONDURANS are known to cross their fingers and pray when planes approach the central American country's international airport and applaud after a successful descent.
Those privy to Toncontin International Airport's track record know they need all the luck they can get.
The airport, located in Tegucigalpa - the capital of Honduras - has a reputation as one of the most treacherous airports in the world due to a difficult approach and a tragic history of deadly plane crashes. The American History Channel has previously ranked Toncontin International Airport as second most "dangerous" on the planet, after Lukla Airport, Nepal.
Surrounded by mountains and residential neighbourhoods, pilots must execute a dramatic 45 degree turn after negotiating the mountainous terrain just minutes prior to touching down in the bowl-shaped valley. They're then faced with an unusually steep approach to the airport, which forces them to use more of the strip on landings and take-offs than they would at sea level.
Yet the airport's runway is just 2,012 metres long, according to the airport's website. Not only does that make taking off and landing more challenging but the site - built on the southern edge of Tegucigalpa in 1948 - still operates with old navigation equipment.
It's a dangerous combination that unnerves even the most skilled pilots and has caused several of them to come undone. The deadliest accident occurred in 1989, when a Boeing commercial plane crashed into a mountainside on approach, killing 132 people. Morgue technician Luis Tellez told local media at the time that most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.
"Some of them don't have arms and legs so we can only identify them through dental records," Mr Tellez said.
At least 10 more planes have since followed suit and crashed in or around the airport, with the most recent incident taking place this week.
On Tuesday, a private jet crashed while landing and broke in half at the airport. About 50,000 people in the surrounding neighbourhood lost power after the plane took down power lines. Miraculously, while at least six Americans on-board were injured, no one was killed.
Honduras's disaster relief agency Copeco deputy Carlos Cordero told local media the plane had left the runway and veered into a ditch. Firefighters arrived at Toncontin International Airport in Tegucigalpa and doused the wreckage with foam. Images posted online showed what appeared to be area residents pulling people out of the damaged fuselage of the white Gulfstream jet, while others sprayed it with hand-held fire extinguishers.
Local businessman Pedro Atala said he and his employees had helped put out the flames with fire extinguishers, and that he had helped five men and a woman, all of whom were "practically unharmed."
It was a happy ending in comparison with the plane crashes at Toncontin International Airport which preceded it.
'WE FOUND MANY BODIES STREWN ABOUT'
In 2011, 14 passengers died after the plane they were travelling on crashed into a hill near the airport.
The National Service of Civil Aviation later said the accident happened minutes after air traffic controllers instructed the pilots to land.
Then-mayor of the town of Santa Ana, Jorge Deras, said he heard an explosion and ran to the crash site.
"We found many ... bodies strewn about," he said at the time.
"It [was] a tragic vision."
In May 2008 a Taca Airlines plane carrying 135 passengers and crew skidded off the runway on its second landing attempt and crashed into a building on a busy street. The plane mowed down trees and smashed through a metal fence before coming to rest about 20 metres beyond the strip. Its nose smashed against a roadside embankment and its fuselage broken into three parts. Five people - including the pilot - were killed and at least 65 people were injured.
Following the crash, officials acknowledged that the runways of Tegucigalpa's ageing Toncontin International Airport were short and its approach paths were dangerous. Large commercial jets were later permanently transferred to operate out of a nearby military airport.
In 1997, a US air force C-130 cargo plane overshot the runway and rolled before bursting into flames on a major boulevard, killing three people on-board.
After touching down on the runway of Toncontin International Airport, the plane rose into the air again, before dropping down, and sliding off the end of the runway, government civil aeronautics airport office chief Colonel Fernando Soto, said at the time.
The plane caught fire as it came to a stop on a major street often crowded with cars and pedestrians.
WHAT'S BEING DONE ABOUT IT?
The Honduran government is currently constructing a new $213 million international airport about 50 kilometres from the capital, near the Palmerola military air base. The new airport - which will boast a longer 2440 metre runway - is being designed to improve on the poor safety record of the existing airport in the capital city, authorities said when announcing the development in 2016.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said the new airport will mean "passengers can land in an airport that does not put their lives at risk".
It is expected to open later this year. But for those flying in and out of Toncontin Airport in the meantime, opening day for the new site can't come soon enough.