I recall seeing a few years ago a TV show about the world’s ten most dangerous airports. Tegucigalpa, St. Maarten and a few others made the list. And so did Lukla, Nepal. Lukla is the typical starting point for anyone trekking along the route to Everest Base Camp, or to other points in the Himalayas. The alternative to the 35-min flight to Lukla (LUA) from Kathmandu is a long bus ride plus a few days of trekking to reach Lukla. I was not thrilled at the prospect but there really was no realistic choice.
Heading to Lukla
The Lukla airport was built by none other than Sir Edmund Hillary himself in 1965 to facilitate developing the trekking business the local population needed; it was just a dirt airstrip until just 1999. Flights in and out of Lukla (a town of a few thousand inhabitants perched high at around 2,840m / 9,300 ft above sea level) mainly fly in the morning when the weather and visibility are what they need to be for a successful flight (read: does not crash). Only planes that can handle short takeoff and landings can operate from Lukla as the runway is only 1,500 ft long. Flights can easily be canceled for the day if the conditions are not right which could be more than one day in a row, leaving hundreds stranded in this small hamlet. So beyond the flight involving a “dangerous” airport, one gets to worry about will the flight even go and what happens to the rest of the itinerary if the day is bust… In any case, there are several airlines that run flights continuously in the morning to and from Lukla. It is like a bus service of sorts with planes making quick turnarounds at either airport to take advantage of the right weather.
The domestic terminal in Kathmandu is small and easy once you get past the chaos of getting to the airline counter and checking in. After being dropped off, we walk along a covered walkway to a building in the back past a new building under construction. The old building was old indeed but it was functional. Once the flight is called (other Lukla flights were called too), we stepped out and there were 2-3 buses awaiting to take people to their planes. It was a bit confusing and finally someone pointed us to our bus based on our boarding pass.
The plane sat maybe 20 people and we were not full. I got a seat on the left so I would be facing north (towards the Himalayas). Unfortunately, the windows were very dirty which assured that photos would not be National Geographic material (that is my excuse anyway…). Gosh, if they’d let us, I would have gotten off the plane pre-takeoff and cleaned my window!
Before taking off, the flight attendant (yes, there is one) checked our seat belts were fastened and handed out hard candy (to choke on when the plane jumped?? no, thanks) and cotton balls for our ears. That and getting us in and out of the plane was all she had time to really do on such a short flight.
The danger reputation stems from the fact that the runway starts at the edge of the mountain and runs uphill (a 12% grade) until either the plane has stopped and turned or, it has met the wall.
I have read and was told by a pilot that part of the issue with landing is that the uphill nature of the runway (the far end being higher than the end nearer to the pilot) can trick the eye giving a false sense to the pilot of the aircraft’s vertical position before landing, potentially leading to accidents.
On the reverse (the takeoff), either the plane catches air at the end of the runway or it drops when the runway runs out until it catches lift.
Truthfully, and maybe naively, neither landing nor takeoff worried me. What worried me was the turbulence that can be encountered on the way to and from Lukla. Not helping with things was the name of our airline: Tara Air. I was happy until someone pronounced it “terror” air which sent images flying all across my brain of a small plane jumping around due to high winds – a terror inducing ride ahead?
The flight into Lukla had gone very smoothly – no turbulence at all! And then we started circling. I was thinking to myself: “so close and now we start circling” – was it weather-related, I wondered? The delay turned out to not be about fog or weather issues and we experienced no turbulence. Lukla airport only has four parking spots for the planes so we had to wait for a plane to take off to get a spot. The flight back from Lukla was also completely smooth giving me a 2-for-2 no-turbulence flights.
Back to landing in Lukla: it was pretty darn cool as the small plane’s cockpit was open to us so we could see the runway ahead as we landed – or the mountains we were flying into before that!
Leaving Lukla, the plane actually took off the ground before the runway ended so no drop was experienced, maybe to the chagrin of those in the plane who love roller-coasters – but not me! Here is a video of my own takeoff – notice when we leave the runway before it ends (it is a noisy video so make sure you are not at max volume!).
In the end, as you may surmise, this was a far better choice than the bus and the walk And now I can say I “survived” one of the world’s “most dangerous” airports!