Imagine yourself gripping the armrest of your seat as you start landing on the airstrip surrounded by colossal mountains. As you are advised to put on your seat belt, prepare for an exciting touchdown. Jaded walls of towering hills form an exquisite landscape with a blacktopped strip appearing as the plane closes in with the descent. In the meantime, strong winds sway the fuselage as the pilot struggles for control. And in a flash, wheels touch the ground. The aircraft heads straight for a wall at the end of the runway with the pilots’ reverse throttling on touchdown. The aircraft then makes a sharp right turn onto the taxiway. With the engine grinding to a halt, you breathe a sigh of relief. This thrilling event can be a death-defying experience, yet a norm if you are willing to enter the Everest Region of Nepal.
Welcome to Lukla Airport - Officially renamed Tenzing Hillary airport in 2008, Lukla airport in the Khumbu region is the gateway to Everest. It is also claimed as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. Of course, one needs to consider that the airport executes around 8 flights per hour during its operational hours between 9 AM and 3 PM. This makes Lukla airport one of the busiest in the country and a highlight if mishaps do occur. However, the airport rarely sees accidents owing to experienced pilots, air traffic controllers, and constant communication with the control tower in Kathmandu. Almost all flights to Lukla originate in Kathmandu thus any weather issue or disturbance is conversed at once to avoid any misfortune.
A lot of features and interesting facts add to the history and current operation of this airport. And the best part, its reputation justifies the tagline Most thrilling Airport in the World.
Gateway to the Himalayas
Tenzing Hillary Airport in Lukla is the gateway to many of the tallest mountains on Earth. The tallest of them all, Mount Everest (8848m), is due north of Lukla and is accompanied by a host of eight-thousanders (peaks with a height of more than 8000m). And this airport is the roughest, albeit, most accessible jump point for most treks and expeditions in the Khumbu region. With an excursion of the Himalayas on every traveller’s bucket list, a journey to this airport is a must in your itinerary.
The spectacular Himalayas mesmerize as the flight takes off from Kathmandu. This 40-minute flight will be the flight of your life for the trip will involve manoeuvring past hills and mountains. Hope the wind and cloud gods are on your side.
How it was constructed
As documented, Sir Edmund Hillary was the mastermind who brought this mountaineers' haven to life. The airport was built in 1964 and further developed in 2001. The Kiwi (Sir Edmund) sought a better site for the airport but was unable to lure locals to give up their farmland. The piece he could conjure for around 2650 dollars is where the airport now stands.
Overall, construction of the Airport was a hassle with engineering issues related to soil resistance and topography needing much thought. It was the grit of Edmund Hillary and a little help from the Sherpa locals that has brought this region a boon in the form of this airport. Before 2001, the runway was merely sand and gravel and was later blacktopped.
In 2008, in commemoration of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, Lukla airport was renamed as Tenzing-Hillary Airport.
Tenzing Hillary airport is among the 15 highest airports in the world. It sits at an elevation of 2840 meters. While this is thrilling, the altitude plays a significant role in aircraft operations which is further elaborated.
The airport is also amongst the top 5 airports with the shortest runway. With the runway, only 527m (1729ft) long, only fixed-wing aircraft with a short takeoff and landing capability can operate here. Helicopters operate to transport folks and their cargo from Kathmandu. However, a Helicopter charter costs much more than a regular flight.
A pilot flying to this airport must be a master at his trait and it is more as evident as you take off and land. The aircraft propels sharply towards the Dudhkoshi valley, with a 2000 feet drop, in a short run-up as the pilots manage to lift the craft off the ground. Adrenaline rush guaranteed.
Thin air is normal in the Himalayas. With a rise in altitude, the amounts of oxygen and air pressure lower. This affects almost everything. Trekkers and mountaineers prepare rigorously for high-altitude climbing and acclimatize to higher elevations during a trek or an expedition.
In the case of Lukla airport and flights landing here, thin air plays a vital role. Most aeroplanes are designed to land at lower elevations. The speed of the aircraft is manageable at lower levels. But the airport is at an altitude of 2840m which makes it pretty challenging to manoeuvre an aircraft. With thin air comes lower air density which means the aircraft are asked to land at higher speeds. Now think of a plane touching down at speeds higher than normal and a runway that is only half a kilometre long. Not a match made in heaven, right?
Tenzing Hillary airport is surrounded by beautiful hills that stagger around this airport and a river valley beneath one end of the runway. This landscape becomes all that more enticing as you either approach or take off from the airport. Lush green hills camouflage the tiny runway strip as a plane from Kathmandu flies past a host of hills and clears the ridge and steadies due left before finally descending onto the runway.
With glorious views of Mount Everest (8848m), Lhotse (8414m) and Makalu (8463m) on offer during the flight, it adds to the thrill of soaring past sumptuous terrain and a beautiful landscape.
Weather in Lukla Everest Nepal
Adding fuel to the fire, unpredictable weather in this particular region makes any journey to and from this airport an exciting endeavour. With chances of fog, high wind, and rain, causes a delay in flight operation and sometimes cancellation of flights due to low visibility.
Mostly, treks in the Everest Region and other parts of the country are undertaken during the months of March to May and September to November. Pleasant weather supplemented by the blooming spring season makes them a must-visit while a mellow and clear climate during the autumn makes for a pleasant experience. Coincidentally, this is rush hour at Tenzing Hillary airport.
Constant Flight Delays and Cancellation
Owing to these weather issues, it’s only normal to have your flights delayed. No one wants to start or end a journey of the Himalayas on a low note, right? Despite all your frisky enthusiasm, a flight can be delayed owing to numerous issues, including most unpredictable weather conditions. In one instance, it might be bright and sunny and in a split second, it might get horribly windy and start raining.
Such sensitive conditions lead to flight delays and in extreme cases, flight cancellation.
Alternatives include a flight to Ramechhap airport, an airport in the Tama river valley of eastern Nepal. Starting on with your trek early, a week-long hike via Jiri will lead you to Lukla and onto the Everest trail. Conversely, a helicopter flight from Kathmandu will land you directly at the foot of Everest. But, where’s the fun in that, right?
A word of advice
With chances of delay, the Kathmandu-Lukla flight will test your perseverance. Make sure you have cash in hand, a book, or better a phone with full juice. This will be a keep busy for a mundane wait at the airport.
Also, make sure you ask the ticketing staff to help you with a seat on the left side when flying from Kathmandu to Lukla and on the right from Lukla to Kathmandu. Say Why? Great views of the Himalayas, of course.
Similarly, remember to acclimatize yourself to the Lukla climate as you will have already breached the 2800-meter mark.
While facts about one of the most extreme airports in the world might be dispiriting, very few accidents have happened and the most recent dates back almost 8 years to 2011. This emphasizes the fact that authorities involved in airport operations at Tenzing Hillary airport in Lukla have come a long way in ensuring passenger safety. This stresses that tourists coming to this region are vital and their safety and well-being is a priority.
And to top it off, Lukla is the gateway to Everest, why not add to the experience with a thrilling mountain flight to Tenzing Hillary Airport in Lukla?
Have a safe journey to the Everest Region.