A portfolio by Christian Nolle
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Funchal Airport is named after Madeira's most famous footballer. His portrait adorns the terminal building. Inside before passport control, everyone passes a bust of his face.
The airport is squeezed tightly into a small space between mountains and the sea. Roads and hills undulate around it, part of the runway stands on stilts. Planes circle to land across the small bay of Santa Cruz before touching down.
One of the many reasons island airports are so interesting is to see how people live around them. Space is limited. By their nature, a runway has to be straight and level. It cuts through everything.
Walking the length of it, you pass above it, then under it, then up again, and are then on the level with its manicured tarmac. People live their lives here. Their gardens are tidy. They grow tomatoes, bananas, and other vegetables, and their roofs are an endless sea of orange tiles that almost perfectly match that of a certain European low-cost airline.
The majority of air traffic destined for the island is full of tourists, but the airport is also a key component of Portuguese infrastructure. The island is relatively remote. The Azores, Canary Islands, or Portugal mainland are all about an hour of flying time away.
Funchal is busy, but there are still gaps in traffic when you just have to wait for the next plane to arrive or depart. A few steps up from the road, this goat blocks the path. Initially skeptical of my presence, but eventually accepting, or maybe he just learns to ignore me like he has of the noise of the planes right behind him.
It's a rare experience to be eye-on-eye with a plane with nothing obstructing the view. The people inside can see you, but you can't see them. This is particularly intense when you watch a plane idling right before take-off. Its engines humming, lights on, lined up, and waiting for take-off clearance. Sometimes this takes a few minutes, sometimes seconds, but it always feels like an eternity until that moment when the engines change their pitch and it finally starts to move. A seemingly mundane spectacle played out through strict ritual over and over again.
While most of the planes landing and taking off here are painted in the colors of Easyjet and Ryanair, there are many others that provide a vital air link to the mainland and elsewhere. There is something else afoot that puts this small island in the middle of the North Atlantic into perspective. New York is now just a single 7-hour non-stop journey away. The plane bringing people back and forth from the United States is no bigger than those from Manchester, blending into the ebb and flow of the airport almost invisibly, all originating from the same bit of tarmac. That's special.
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