It seemed as though this day had been forever in the making. I’d spent months on the gym’s stair climber trying to rid myself of my ‘extra baggage’. I’d endured the stares of the gym’s native population who had undoubtedly pondered why I was working up a sweat whilst wearing a high altitude mask that made me look like Bane from Batman. I’d abstained when given the mouthwatering opportunity to have a second serving of Christmas Dinner. Yet now it all felt worthwhile. Here we were sitting in Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan airport waiting to board our flight to Lukla; the gateway to Everest. There isn’t much to do at Tribhuvan airport except nervously ponder the quietly impending existential crisis going through any sane, mind. Those dark thoughts, only to be broken by shuddering bursts of “garble garble, flight to mountain” over the intercom, are entirely rationale as demonstrated below. As I watched my wife nervously pace across the floor, I myself succumbed to the inevitable: I began to ponder the reasons why one might be nervous about flying in to this particular airport; reasons I had refrained from disclosing to my wife:
Reason One: The airport’s vital statistics. Never before have I heard such a frightening list of reasons why an airport shouldn’t be operational. At an altitude of 9,101 feet, Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport is the 36th highest airport in the world. Its runway is 1,729 feet long which, to provide a comparison, is 7.5 times shorter than London Heathrow’s Northern Terminal. The runway has an 11 degree slope, meaning one end is 200ft below the other. The landing end of the runway is a solid cliff face and the takeoff end is a 2,000ft vertical drop in to the valley below. Finally, given that the runway is located deep in a steep-sided Himalayan valley, the chances of executing a ‘go-around’ if one was needed are slim to none. All that said, there are basically three options at this ridiculously high, short, slanty and perilous airport: successfully land, crash into a cliff face, or crash down 2,000ft into a valley.
Reason Two: Lukla has been consistently ranked as the most dangerous airport in the world. I first heard of it some years ago when I watched the History Channel’s ‘Most Extreme Airports’. The title of the show really captured its essence and Lukla topped the charts at #1 (the one list you don’t want to top). These days, YouTube is full of countdowns (like this one) and so it was a joy to relive those hellish memories before I boarded the flight! The airport’s danger factor has resulted in strict certification requirements for pilots, including a minimum of 100 ‘short-take-off-and-landing’ (STOL) missions, one year of STOL experience in Nepal and ten flights into Lukla with a certified pilot. I guess this means, at the very least, you’re in ‘capable’ hands…..
Reason Three: Plane crashes and fatalities aren’t quite as unheard of as they are at your average airport. The aviation safety website provides a daunting summary of recent crashes (at least those that were recorded) and fatalities at Lukla. Most recently (May 2017) was a crash that resulted in 2 deaths after a cargo plane ‘impacted steep rocky and wooded terrain’ after possibly attempting a ‘go-around’. When you consider that a crash at Tribhuvan Airport (our departure airport) killing 49 people also took place during our visit, it’s fair to say that the existing apprehension was further heightened.
Reason Four: All of Nepal’s domestic airlines are banned from EU airspace due to their poor safety record and only domestic Nepalese airlines fly in to Lukla. I refer you to the aforementioned Reason Three and Reason Seven below as undeniable evidence as to why this is probably a wise decision by the fine people who compile the EU Air Safety List.
Reason Five: Only light aircraft (carrying no more than 16 people) can land at Lukla which makes the perilous journey through the region’s undulating valleys and uncompromising wind and thermals all the more, shall we say, bumpy. The effect of this was written across the face of my wife when I turned around in my seat to check she was OK after a particularly tense few minutes of rollercoaster turbulence. Her expression hinted a mixture of pure terror and a mild desire to murder me in my sleep. Read into that what you will. Combined with this general propensity for a bumpy journey is the fact that pilots flying in to Lukla intentionally make their planes susceptible to the effects of downdrafts. I’m a particular fan of this chilling explanation from the Himalayan Times:
“The flight crews during their final approach are required to maintain an air speed that barely keeps the aircraft out of stall conditions for ensuring a complete stop on the very limited runway length ahead. This deliberate inadequate air speed margin, technically called Vref, leaves the aircraft vulnerable to the effects of possible downdrafts and wind speed variations in the final few seconds before touchdown, a veteran Lukla-frequenting captain explained.”
So, to summarise in layman’s terms: Just when you’re about to land, the pilot puts the aircraft in to a virtual stall scenario that invites wind which could cause you to crash.
Reason Six: Planes land at Lukla by sight navigation, and so the slightest chance of cloud, rain, sleet, snow, a mild breeze, rainbows, or the changing of the seas tides (slight exaggeration, but only slight) leads to flight cancellations. Bad weather in the morning delayed our flight by about 4 hours and apparently a storm was incoming in the afternoon which led to us being informed that ‘hopefully we’ll make it out before it was too late’. Comforting!
….and then, at the last minute, came unanticipated reasons seven and eight.
Reason Seven: It presented itself when we were gleefully notified that our pilot was fairly inexperienced on this particular route and so wanted less luggage on board to ‘keep the weight down’. Not only was that prospect ‘mildly’ disconcerting (that’s the polite British way of saying that I was now ‘shitting my pants’) but it also meant that for some of us the first 48 hours would be spent in the same pair of, by the end of this plane ride, aforementioned lightly stained pants.
Reason Eight: It came just as we were about to take off from Kathmandu. We’d taxied out to the runway, when all of a sudden our pilot started to ‘bunnyhop’ the plane up the tarmac followed by promptly taxing back to the terminal. Turns out he wasn’t happy with the plane’s brakes. But not to worry, a few tweaks and ‘it’ll all be ok in twenty minutes time’. Dodgy brakes and a seemingly blasé approach to required maintenance aren’t particularly what you want to hear about when you’re planning to land at one of the shortest commercial airports in the world…particularly one that ends with a cliff face that leaves very little room for error.
Despite all of the above, the good news is, as you could probably tell, that we eventually took off and survived to tell this tale (and made it to Everest Base Camp). It’s probably not an airport that someone scared of flying would wish to frequent as my wife can well attest. That said, it’s one hell of a ride and the views aren’t bad either!