Madeira International Airport, located near Funchal, Madeira in Portugal was first opened on July 1964 with two 1,600-meter (5,249 ft) runways. The short runway made landing a tricky business for even the most experienced of pilots. The high mountains surrounding the airport and the nearby ocean only complicated matters. First the pilots has to aim their aircraft at the mountains, and then break a hard right to meet the runway. Aside to the shift of direction, the warm winds coming off the ocean meet the cooler mountain dry air, which in-turn produces massive turbulence.
On November 19, 1977, a Boeing 727 aircraft flying from Brussels tried desperately to stop after touching down 2000 feet past the threshold in heavy rain, strong winds and poor visibility, but slid off the end and plunged 200 feet into the land below killing 131 people aboard. The crash prompted officials to explore ways of extending the short runway.
Eight years after the incident a 200 meters extension was built over the ocean and again extended in 2000. But instead of using landfill, the extension was built on a series of 180 concrete columns, each being about 70 meters. The total length of the runway was almost doubled, which means that half of the runway is held up by pillars.
For the unique runway expansion project the Funchal Airport has won the Outstanding Structures Award in 2004 given by International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering (IABSE).
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