Madeira has a special place in the heart of European planespotters, not because of the number of planes or the variety of airlines or the proportion of widebodies flying there, all of which are a bit underwhelming. No, it's the airport itself, its location and construction, and, most importantly of all, the more-exciting-than-usual approach and variable winds that make the island a bit of a Mecca for aviation enthusiasts.
- The island is virtually all mountains and valleys. (The plateaus at the top are national parks and nature preservation areas and unsuitable for airport building). The airport is by the coast, with a runway running alongside the coastline.
- The runway was extended twice. As there was no land to extend it on, the extensions were built on hundreds of 70m-high concrete pillars. Basically, about a third of the airport is built on platform / bridge. Several roads and entertainment facilities are below the runway among the pillars carrying it.
- Planes landing at the airport either do an approach which involves a u-turn into a very short final approach, or they approach in a less dramatic line, but through an area that seems a lot more plagued by gusts and crosswinds. The U-turn approach involves flying towards the mountains, which can be a bit nerve-racking for passengers.
- Planes landing via the u-turn approach can be photographed with the terrain in the background, so you can see houses and gardens and mountainside just behind the plane...
- As the airport is small and space very restrictive, planespotters can also get very close to the runway. Even better, as the land rises away from the airport, you can be close to the runway and above it, looking down on planes landing and taking off, at an angle usually only available to airport towers or helicopters...
- Because of the way the coastline zigs and zags, you can also find locations directly aligned with the runway, and above, from which to take photos of planes approaching and landing. It's not the same as the famous checkerboard hill at the long-closed Hong Kong Kaitak airport, but it's a pretty rare opportunity nonetheless.
- Oh, and Madeira is a stunning, stunning island. The most spectacular in the Atlantic. If you want sand beaches, you'll have to go to the Canaries or to Porto Santo, and if you want calm nature and few tourists, you should visit the Azores. However, if you love mountains, forests, nature, the sea and spectacular scenery, while also appreciating good weather that never gets too hot or too cold, and being tolerant of relatively high tourist numbers, then Madeira is perfect. If I were religious and believed in Eden, I'm pretty sure Madeira would be it. The island also hosts a variety of festivals - apparently, the New Year's fireworks are world class (and were recently in the Guinness Book of World Records for their scale), there are is a huge island-wide flower festival in spring, etc. etc. - basically, Madeira is a world class destination even if you aren't a planespotter.
Below the break, you will find lots of photos to illustrate the points, and a planespotting travel guide.