Nervous flyers are relatable. There isn’t much that’s natural about flying through the air in a tin can full of explosive jet fuel, though we all know that statistically, it’s supposedly the safest mode of transport. Planes and pilots of your normal commercial aircraft have multiple fail safes. Safety standards, extra fuel, multiple engines, alternate airports and a no blame ‘go around’ policy.
So what happens when many of these fail safes are removed?
The Tenzing-Hillary airport at Lukla in the Himalayas is infamous for being one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Why? I’m glad you asked.
The airport itself is situated on the side of a mountain, in a valley, at over 2,800m elevation (9,337 feet). The elevation in itself isn’t necessarily unique, but that’s not the only ‘danger’ factor. So let’s list them off quickly:
- It’s in the Himalayas so weather changes quickly. Flights are often cancelled due to low visibility.
- It’s in mountainous terrain so turbulent air and wind sheer are fairly par for the course.
- The runway is just over 500m long (i.e incredibly short) and angled at 11.7 degrees to help planes slow down. Add to this that one end of the runway is pretty much a wall and the other is a steep drop off into a ravine. As such, only certain aircraft can actually land at Lukla, the fixed wings are usually twin otters.
- As you descend into the valley, there comes a point where there is no go around for pilots. You’re landing one way or another.
- Whilst the pilots have to complete a number of short runway take offs and landings (including at Lukla), the maintenance and safety standards for the aviation industry in Nepal leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Why would you fly there?
With all that being said you might be asking yourself, “why would anyone want two fly into Lukla”? Well…..its the quickest way to get into the Everest region and start trekking. It’s the most convenient place to start the Everest Base Camp Trek or for those looking for more advanced climbs.
You can drive from Kathmandu and start the trek from Salleri, though this adds multiple days to the trip. That being said, I did meet lots of people that had made this trek for whatever reason.
Personally, I wasn’t particularly thrilled about the potential dangers of the flight (I don’t know who would be!). However, I didn’t want to tack on the extra time to trek from Salleri, and I guess it would be a hell of an experience to fly in and out of Lukla…..
The flight: Kathmandu to Lukla
You might think that the seemingly haphazard nature of the flight is centred around Lukla.
It actually starts in Kathmandu.
We were on the first flight out with Sita Air: 6am. The ticket says to arrive at least one and quarter hours before the flight which by my maths means arriving at the airport at 4.45am.
The night before my guide had said that we should aim to get to the airport at 5.30am, to which I said that a 4.45am arrival time is required. We settled for 5am.
The airport didn’t even open till 5.20am.
It turns out that whilst my guide, Ghanesh, had done this flight over a hundred times, the flight had NEVER left on time. In fact, the sun didn’t come up till 6.45am and this is the sort of flight that is only completed in daytime. The lesson: listen to your guide.
I believe we were bussed out to the plane shortly after 7am and bundled onto the small twin otter. Open cockpit, no safety briefing, just sit tight and try to keep your bodily fluids inside.
The flight itself was intense enough. It’s not like your normal commercial plane. The turbulence is constant and in all directions. Pitch, roll, yaw, as if a small child had the plane in their hand and was mimicking flight. The views of the Himalayas are spectacular, including the first glimpse of Everest standing head and shoulders above all of the other huge mountains. It only lasts about 20-25 minutes before you pass over one of the many ridge lines, turn left and drop down into a valley.
This is it.
You look down the aisle of the plane and straight out of the cockpit window. There it is. Nestled on the side of the mountain surrounded by the village of Lukla: an airstrip. You have to fight the temptation to snap a quick picture, the flight attendants had ben adamant at the start of the flight that no pictures or video of the cockpit were allowed.
You barely have time prepare yourself before the sides of the ravine quickly rise up to meet the descending aircraft. You think “wow, we’re coming in hot”. A glimpse of a few houses later and you’re landing ‘on the numbers’ (pilot speak for landing on the large numbers right at the beginning of the runway). The engines reverse and, aided by the inclined runway, you come to a stop and make sharp right turn to park in front of the terminal building. In less than a couple of minutes you are exiting the plane and standing back on firm ground.
It all happens very quickly. There’s a decent amount of sweat involved.
It takes mere minutes to collect your bags and venture out of the airport and to a tea house for breakfast.
I had an idea at the time, but in retrospect, I was pretty flustered. Perhaps it’s over dramatic, but I felt like I’d gotten away with it. I’d landed at this infamous airport and survived to tell the tale. The thing that struck me was just how fast it all was. There’s very little preparation involved. Instead, you’re bundled onto a small plane, flown over spectacular ridges alongside even more spectacular mountains and peak, only to be unceremoniously dumped on the side of the mountain at Lukla. After quick breakfast you’re then on your way along the valley towards your first stop on the EBC trek and the flight is but a distant memory.
A return to Lukla and the take-off
Nearly a couple of weeks later I returned to Lukla to fly back to Kathmandu.
I thought the first flight was fast and frantic. This one was double the speed.
Security leaves a little to be desired, though it didn’t feel totally necessary. Who’s going to cause any trouble coming down from the Everest Region? Surely it would be flying into Lukla. Either way, there are no scanners. There’s a guy that presses seemingly random parts of the outside of your rucksack and asks if you have any rocks. There’s another guy that gives you a cursory pat down. That’s it. You’re clear to fly.
The planes fly in from Kathmandu and park up to be unloaded. Without exaggerating, within 6 or 7 minutes of the plane landing, you’re in the plane at the start of the runway ready to take off.
It’s a fairly typical take off as the engines roar…..until 30 metres later when you hit the downslope. There’s no turning back now and within a few hundred metres, you’re in the air and climbing. What shocked me was the proximity to the first ridge that you have to clear. God knows how far you clear it by, but it ain’t much. Maybe a couple of hundred metres.
This flight was more turbulent than the first. One of the guys didn’t look up from the moment we started moving – head buried in the seat in front of him.
25 minutes later and you’re descending into Kathmandu with a thankfully much longer runway. The fear is gone, the relief is somewhat palpable.
Would I do it again?
I suppose statistically, the chances are still pretty slim though there’s something about a plane crash that trumps other such automotive disasters in our psyche.
Not if I had to. It’s a hell of an experience and I’m glad I did it.