Pilots, passengers need nerves of steel to land at Everest gateway Lukla

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 2:39am


As soon as the decades-old Twin Otter landed at Lukla airport, passengers burst into applause. They do that for nearly every safe landing at the often terrifying airport at the gateway to Mount Everest.

At an altitude of 2,843 metres, the small airstrip has earned a reputation as one of the most extreme and dangerous airports in the world. The single runway is narrow, short and sloped. Miss the runway by a few metres and the plane hits a mountain.

"After you cross the river there is no turning back, you have to land," said Pramod Poudel, a Tara Air pilot who has flown hundreds of these flights to Lukla.

Carved out of the side of a mountain, the airport was built by Edmund Hillary in 1965 - 12 years after he became the first man to climb the world's highest peak - to help spur development in the impoverished area.

Now what once was a dirt strip is one of Nepal's busiest airports, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport - named as well after Hillary's climbing partner Tenzing Norgay. The thousands of mountaineers and trekkers who visit the region have to fly to the airport if they want to avoid a day-long bus trip from Katmandu and five days of trekking. The airport has handled up to 79 flights on one day - far beyond the acceptable capacity, said Rinji, its air traffic controller, who uses only one name.

"It is really challenging, because of the geographical location of the airport and high mountains that surround it. Topography is challenging and the traffic volume is challenging. There is little space for aircraft to manoeuvre because of the high mountains and narrow valley."

Poudel, the pilot, said he and his colleagues needed to concentrate hard when landing on the runway, which is less than 500 metres long, slopes 12 degrees and is barely 20 metres wide.

"Because there is no way to go around again, we have to calculate many things like air speed, tail wind, fog," he said. "If you don't do the proper calculation or proper exercise, then it [an accident] happens."

Only short-take-off-and-landing planes like the Twin Otter and Dornier, which take 18 passengers, can use the airport.

Crashes are not uncommon. In 2008, 18 people were killed when a Twin Otter belonging to the domestic Yeti Airlines crashed into the side of the runway and caught fire while trying to land in heavy fog. In August 2010, 14 people died when an Agni Air Dornier crashed.

Even on its best days, the airport is open for only a few hours.

A man named Funru said his father once owned the land where the airport sits and helped Hillary create the airstrip. "When I first began working at the airport, it used to be nothing like this. It was like a river bank. Every evening we had to collect rocks and fill the potholes so flights could land the next morning."