On top of the world
by Santiago Rivas
“If you want to climb Mount Everest, you have to fly into Lukla and your journey starts from there.” – Managing Director of SITA, Rajendra Singh
It is 7:15 in the morning, and 14 excited passengers are sitting in the Kathmandu airport taxi waiting room. They should have flown out at 6:45 a.m., and the anxiety levels are slowly rising. An early start is important in order to set off on the two-week trek to Mount Everest base camp. An announcement comes over the speaker, “Flight YT11 is late due to high winds, rain, and cloud cover causing changing visibility.” The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla takes just 40 minutes. However, the weather can change very quickly and can also be dramatically different in the two locations. Flight crews will only be cleared for flight if both airports have good visibility and low wind. Finally, the weather clears up.
Airliner passengers waiting to taxi as pilots perform preflight check before taking off for their destination Tenzing-Hillary (Lukla) Airport, Nepal. (Photo: alamy)
At the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, the bus brings out the 14 mountaineers anxiously clinging to their gear. Their packs usually contain cameras, down expedition suits, backpacks with sleeping bags attached, a closed-cell foam pad, thermal cups, spoons, and sometimes ice picks. Once they land in Lukla, the passengers have an arduous 10- to 14-day hike to Everest Base Camp at 5,380 meters.
Lukla is the gateway to Mount Everest and is home to the Tenzing-Hillary Airport (also known as the Lukla Airport), which is notorious for having one of the most dangerous runways in the world. In 2018, passenger Alyson Long wrote:
“It was a ride of a lifetime, a dream come true…it was also pretty scary. We bumped up and down and blew from side to side. I spent most of my time praying or in the brace position. In the final minutes of the flight, it seemed the pilot was about to fly into a brown, craggy mountain as eagles flew just below us. At the last moment he took a right turn, and Lukla’s tiny airport came into view. The landing was fast and bumpy but safe.”
If your destination is Mount Everest, be prepared for one of the most beautiful landings you will ever experience. The Tenzing-Hillary Airport was named after Kiwi mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, who were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953. The airport runway is 527 meters long by 30 meters wide; it sits on the side of a mountain at 2,845 meters above sea level with an 11.7% gradient. At one end of the single runway, there is a 600-meter drop, and at the other end, a mountain wall with a narrow path leading to a Buddhist shrine. Most tourists find landings and takeoffs here terrifying and exhilarating.
Landing in Lukla
Lukla is officially a “Short Takeoff and Landing Airport” (STOLport) which means only aircraft with STOL capability can land in Lukla. Managing Director of SITA Air, Rajendra Singh explains that, when landing in Lukla, an aircraft can “come to a halt without even applying the brakes thanks to the gradient.” The slope also assists in fast takeoffs as the planes descend 200 feet down a gradient before becoming airborne. The airport has only one line of approach, and the runway is much shorter than normal, so second chances and late “go-arounds” are not possible. “The best aircraft for our airport is the high-speed Dornier 228 because it can come to a halt within 300 to 350 meters as it lands at a speed between 80 and 90 knots.” People often become anxious and very excited when they board the Dornier 228 for Lukla. When the aircraft lands nice and smoothly, everyone claps because they have all heard the rumors and know it is described as the most dangerous airport in the world.
Pilots approach Tenzing-Hillary Airport runway, Lukla, Nepal. (Photo: iStock)
Operating at high altitude in mountainous terrain is challenging for most aircraft crews as they have to calculate weight limitations with short takeoffs and landings while taking the current wind velocity into account. “Nepal is very unique because we have cold, hot and high conditions,” says Singh. During the summer, temperatures in Nepalgunj can reach more than 40 ºC (104 ºF), and a few minutes after takeoff, the temperature drops dramatically as the pilot reaches 10,000 feet.
Wind is another concern for air transport operations. At Lukla, aircraft can only take off if the tailwind is less than 10 knots. If the wind exceeds 10 knots, the operation is cancelled. “The Dornier 228 is probably the only aircraft that actually responds in a very stable manner in crosswinds. We stay within the limits, and we operate safely. The wind is usually below 10 knots, except at certain hours of the day or at certain periods of the year just before it snows,” explains Singh. After his visit, the famous air-to-air photographer Katsuhiko Tokunaga also said, “The most impressive thing is the strong wind. To aim your aircraft at the runway is quite a challenge. You can usually only fly in the morning as the wind becomes too strong in the afternoon.”
Hikers leave Lukla (2,850 meters) destined for Mount Everest Base Camp at 5,380 meters. (Photo: iStock)
Prayer flags wave above the village of Lukla, Nepal. (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Building the runway
Before the advent of Lukla Airport in 1964, it took three weeks to reach Lukla on foot from Kathmandu. Lukla really needed an alternative to bring goods and food to the town of some 500 people, and so the Himalayan Trust Fund established by Edmund Hillary, along with Hillary himself, decided to build an airport. Hillary actually wanted to build Lukla Airport on flat farmland, but, understandably, local farmers wanted to keep this precious terrain for agriculture. In the mountains, however, the Sherpas were ready and willing to help, and so mountain land was bought from them. Hillary also arranged that the Sherpas would do the primary construction. Sherpas are native mountain dwellers in Nepal, and this work helped raise their standard of living. The original runway was made with dirt and sprinkled with crushed stone. It is said that Hillary asked the Sherpas to perform a foot-stomping dance to compact the runway more.
Later, in 2001, the dirt-and-rock runway was paved. The airport has no navigation equipment, which means pilots perform takeoffs and landings with visual contact only. To make your trip to Lukla a success, you need short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) aircraft, experienced pilots and favorable weather. When the combination is right, your visit to Lukla may seem so easy that you then wonder why on earth people call Lukla the most dangerous airport in the world.
SITA Air Dornier 228 approaches runway, Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla, Nepal. (Photo: alamy)
SITA Air started in 2000 and changed owners in 2016. It is one of the few airlines that connect the remote areas of Nepal, linking eleven cities with each other. With its main base in Kathmandu, SITA also has a hub in Nepalgunj in the west of the country near the Indian border. Nepalgunj houses SITA’s maintenance hangar. From there, SITA regularly flies to Lukla, Tumlingta, Pokhara, Surkhet, Rara, Jumla, Bajura and Dolpa, and other seasonal destinations. Singh explains that Nepal “is a mountainous country with the highest peaks in the world, so we have a sizeable number of tourists who want to climb the Nepalese mountains each year.” Its current fleet consists of two Dornier 228-202s, one 228-202K and one 228-212.
More information: http://sitaair.com.np/