Old Tawau Airport: One of World’s Scariest Runways

For those of you who have experienced landing at the old Tawau airport a long time ago, you know how scary it can be.

The airport ceased operations when the new Tawau International Airport was opened in 2001, located about 33km from the town centre. The old airport was in operation for more than 50 years.

The biggest aircraft that the old airport can handle was a Boeing 737. Fokker 50 also served the airport

Due to the short runway which was about 2.2km in length, a Boeing 737 aircraft must apply maximum braking during landing. Can you imagine if the runway is wet?

Here’s how Mr. Ahmad M from MalaysianWings forum described landing at the old Tawau airport:

Nothing close like the airports mentioned but locally the old Tawau airport was quite tricky during its days especially for a B737-400. For runway 17 you have to fly manually between two hills ( one of them is called Outer Marker Hill if I remember correctly) then a short line up into finals and land on a short and just wide enough runway with full maximum autobrakes and maximum reverse. No nice smooth touchdown here as a nice solid “thump” is required and to be fair to the Tawau folks they were very understanding.

As a pilot, it requires a lot of training and experience before they are allowed to land an aircraft at the airport. For this very reason the old airport was also known as “The Captain’s Airport”  as described by Mr. Ahmad M in the forum:

Its a Captain’s only sector (including take-offs) and a Captain must be qualified and rated for TWU ops. For the rating he must go through training and practice landings in the simulator and then fly a couple of sectors into TWU with an instructor/ Authorized Examiner. Its also a daylight only operations and at the slightest sign of rain, the flight will be delayed, diverted or even cancelled.

In 1995, there was a huge tragedy at the airport when a Fokker 50 from Kota Kinabalu touched down 500m before the end of the runway. While attempting to carry out a go-around, the aircraft crashed into a Malay village, Kampung Seri Menanti, causing 34 fatalities including two crews.

The new airport has a longer runway and probably no longer a challenge for pilots. Thus the “Captain’s Airport” is nothing but a distant memory.

P/S Are you Mr. Ahmad M from the forum? We would like to hear more stories from you.