Have you seen a long, rectangular strip of ground with a hard surface in any airport? It’s a runway, a physical facility in an airport built to accommodate aircraft takeoffs and landings. A runway is a rectangular area on a land aerodrome that can either be man-made (concrete/asphalt) or a natural surface (grass or gravel). Depending on the aircraft type (weight, size) and elevation of the airport, the dimensions of the runway vary. While discussing runway length, do you know which the longest runway in the world is?
Although there are no regulated runway lengths, runways in smaller general aviation can measure as small as 245m long. Major international airports may construct runways as big as 18,045 feet long and 262 feet wide to handle giant aircraft. Long runways allow large jets to boost their speed and takeoff and land safely. Here, we’ll take a detailed look at the 5 longest runways in the world. Let’s get ready to take off.
Let’s dig more into the details of these five longest runways in the world.
1. Shigatse Peace Airport, China (runway length: 5,000m)
Shigatse Peace Airport (RKZ), a dual-use military and civilian airport in Shigatse, Tibet hosts the longest runway in the world. The new runway (09/27) stretches 5,000m (16,404 ft) long with a 60-meter asphalt overrun at each end. If you are wondering the reason behind this lengthy runway, it’s all down to the airport’s elevation. Shigatse Peace Airport is one of the world’s highest civilian airports with an elevation of 3,782 meters above sea level. A challenging set of atmospheric conditions such as low atmospheric pressure, thin air density, etc. exists at high elevations. This results in less lift and reduced engine thrust on the aircraft, calling for a higher lift speed to take off to the sky. In such a scenario, aircraft need long runways to accelerate at higher than normal lift-off speed to become airborne.
Shigatse Peace Airport serves the second-largest Tibetan city of Shigatse and handles regular flights of China Eastern Airlines, Tibet Airlines, and West Air. It is the fifth civilian airport in the Tibet Autonomous region, opened to the public in 2010. Besides hosting the longest runway in the world, RKZ Airport also has a second runway measuring 3km long (9, 843ft). The 07/25 runway has a concrete surface and handles military operations.
2. Ulyanovsk Vostochny Airport, Russia (runway length: 5,000m)
The Ulyanovsk Vostonchny Airport (ULY)’s runway clocking in at 5,000m (16,000ft) in length shares the title with Shigatse Peace Airport as the longest runway in the world. The ULY Airport’s 02/20 runway has a reinforced concrete surface and boasts the longest and widest dimension at 5km and 105 meters respectively.
Serving Russia’s Ulyanovsk region, ULY airport mainly sees cargo flights and acts as the main base for Volga-Dnepr Airlines. The Russian carrier touts a unique fleet featuring twelve Russian four-engined Antonov An-124s, five Boeing 747-8Fs, and five Russian strategic air lifters Ilyushin IL-76TD-90VDs. Unlike RKZ Airport, this airport doesn’t have a high-altitude hindrance as it stands at an elevation of just 77 meters.
The probable reason for ULY to build the longest runway in the world is to withstand the landing and takeoff of these bulky cargo jets. Heavy aircraft like An-124s (the second heaviest gross weight production cargo airplane) take longer time to reach their take-off speed. Therefore, covering the long distance requires long runways for these jets to gain airborne speed and achieve a safe takeoff.
Ulyanovsk Airport is not just a hub for Volga-Dnepr Airlines; it also acts as a base for Aviastar-SP. Aviastar-SP is a subsidiary of United Aircraft Corporation specializing in the manufacturing of cargo aircraft An-124 and Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft.
3. Embraer Unidade Gaviao Peixoto Airport, Brazil (runway length: 4,967m)
The privately operated Embraer Unidade Gaviao Peixoto Airport is home to the longest runway in South America. Owned by Brazilian multinational aerospace manufacturer Embraer, the airport doesn’t operate any scheduled flights. Instead, Embraer uses this airport to house the final assembly of Phenom 100s and Phenom 300s and for flight testing.
The runway 02/20 with 4,967x 45m dimensions is built to test Embraer civil and military flights. Touting a length of 4,967meters, this runway enjoys fame as the second-longest runway in the world. While Embraer uses a majority of the runway (2,975m) for flight testing, the rest of it is taken up by a displaced threshold.
Embraer Gaviao Peixoto Airport is situated at an altitude of 603 meters, 18km away from downtown Gavio Peixoto. The South-American aerospace giant Embraer has based a plant on this airport that manufactures wings of aircraft like E190, E195, EMB 314 Super Tucano, KC-390s, etc.
4. Upington Airport, South Africa (runway length: 4,900m)
The South African Airport in Upington, Northern Cape is an international cargo hub operating mostly non-scheduled charter flights. The airport has three asphalt runways, one of which is the third-longest runway in the world. Runway 17/35 measuring 4900meters (16,076 feet) long is the main runway of Upington Airport (UTN), designed for Boeing 747 aircraft.
Why did Upington Airport require such an extreme length for its primary runway? There are three main reasons: the high elevation of the airport at 851meters, exceedingly hot summer temperatures, and the need to accommodate takeoff and landings of ‘Queens of the Skies’. Boeing 747 is a wide-body jumbo jet with a maximum takeoff weight of 630,000-696,000lbs. Such a mammoth jet requires a lengthy runway to build up enough speed and prepare for safe takeoff or landings. The heavyweight of Boeing 747s combined with high-altitude challenges necessitates plenty of space to make safe takeoffs and landings.
The Johannesburg-based Airlink operates regularly scheduled passenger flights to this airport from Cape Town and O.R. Tambo International Airport. All other flights in and out of this airport are non-scheduled charter operations ferrying mainly grapes, cars, and vehicle-test teams.
The other two asphalt-paved runways in Upington Airport i.e. 01/19 and 08/26 have lengths of 2,438 meters and 1,829 meters respectively.
5. Denver International Airport, the United States of America (runway length: 4,877m)
The primary international gateway to Denver, Colorado i.e. Denver International Airport (DEN) boasts the fifth-longest runway in the world. It is the world’s second-largest airport at 33,521 acres and the third busiest airport as of 2021. Among six runways built by the airport, the runway 16R/ 34L is the longest one with a length of 4,877 meters (16,000 ft). Opened in September 2003, this runway stands 4,000feet longer than the rest of the five runways in Denver Airport. All other runways of DEN Airport (i.e. 7/25, 8/26, 16L/34R, 17L/35R, 17R, 35L) have a uniform length of 3,658m (12,000ft).
DEN Airport is a renowned airline destination in the Western US with the presence of major carriers in the world. Airlines like Aeromexico, Air Canada, Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Southwest, Spirit Airlines, United Airlines, etc. fly out of this airport using a variety of narrowbody and widebody aircraft.
Runway 16/34L easily caters to behemoth jets departing and arriving at Denver Airport like superjumbo Airbus 380s, Boeing B747s, etc. The runway is crucial to accommodate giant jets’ need for plenty of room to perform takeoff and touchdown. Situated at 1,656m (5, 434ft) above sea level, flying to/from Denver International Airport is difficult due to low atmospheric pressure or air density. The 4877-m long runway assists the operations of large passenger aircraft amid the high altitude and associated atmospheric extremities.
Other longest runways in the world
Initially, Qamdo Bamda Airport in China was the title holder of the ‘longest runway in the world’ at 18,045 feet. The airport serving Qamdo, Tibet used to have a 5,500m-long landing strip before it was replaced by a 4500m-long runway.
The location of the airport at an elevation of 4,334m is the prime cause for constructing a long runway. The aircraft flying at this altitude are prone to having lower engine and lift performance and thus require covering a long distance to acquire the lift needed to get them airborne.
With the closure of the original 5500-meter-long runway, the current airstrip at Qamdo Bamda Airport is the 25th longest runway in the world at 4,500 meters (14,764 meters). The airport sees a handful of flights operated by Chinese carriers like Air China, Tibet Airlines, and West Air. Chengdu-Shuangliu is the topmost destination of this airport served by both Air China and Tibet Airlines.
Other five longest runways in the world
To give you a detailed insight into runway lengths, we’ve listed another five longest runways (top 6-10) in the world.
6. Hamad International Airport, Doha (4,850m)
7. Madrid-Torrejon International Airport, Spain (4,818m)
8. Erbil International Airport, Iraq (4,800m)
9. Harare International Airport, Zimbabwe (4,725m)
10. N’djili Airport, DR of the Congo (4,700m)