Lukla Airport

How I arrived alive at the most dangerous airport in the world

There was absolutely nothing to be seen more than 20 meters from the tip of the nose. The helicopter was about to arrive at Lukla, an airport that the statistics of air accidents put it at the top of the ranking of the most dangerous in the world. The noise of the propellers outside contrasted with the deafening silence inside the cabin.

According to the Aviation Herald, a website in English that publishes reports of accidents on civil flights worldwide, since its inauguration in 1964, there were 116 accidents with loss of hull (when the aircraft was destroyed), with 474 deaths.

The Aviation Safety Database of the government of Nepal indicates that since 2000 there have been 22 accidents, with 14 deaths.

No alternative
Despite the risks, Lukla airport is the best option for those who want to go to the Himalayas, either to reach the summit of Mount Everest or just reach Base Camp.

The option to fly there from Kathmandu Airport (a 45-minute journey) is to go by car or bus from the Nepalese capital to a village called Shivalaya, which is 1767 meters above sea level, and then travel a walking trail. After a six-day trek, you reach Lukla, a citadel located at 2860 meters above sea level.

In fact, it is generosity to call Lukla a citadel, it is a cluster of buildings around the airport, with hotels, inns, restaurants and residences of people who live around the airport.

Homage to the pioneers

Lukla Airport is called Tenzing-Hillary, in honor of Nepalese Tenzing Norgay and the British Edmund Hillary, the first to reach the summit of Everest in 1953.
The airport was built in 1964 by Hillary himself, who acquired the area for US $ 2,650.

Today, it records about 60 landings and takeoffs per day. The Himalayan hiking and climbing industry each year brings $ 300 million to Nepal.
High risk operation.

From a technical point of view, it is extremely risky to land or land in Lukla. The place meets practically all the unfavorable conditions for the operation.

Altitude- Low atmospheric pressure makes it difficult to fly the plane. Air density is much lower than at sea level and this negatively affects the amount of energy generated by aircraft engines, reducing lift. The reduced air resistance also makes it more challenging to slow the plane down. At high altitudes, the longer the runway, the better. To facilitate the braking of the aircraft, the runway has an inclination of 12 degrees.

Short track- Thus, the situation worsens. The Lukla runway is 527 meters long, less than half the size of the Santos Dumont airport in Rio de Janeiro, which is 1,323 meters long. To facilitate deceleration, the track has an inclination of 12 degrees.

Mountains- The head of the track where the landings end ends in a mountain wall. Therefore, it makes any attempt to launch impossible (when the pilot gives up to land and takes off again, after the aircraft touches the ground).

As soon as it takes off, the plane must immediately take a left turn, otherwise it will collide with a mountain.

Winds – Lukla airport is in a kind of gap between two mountains, which enhances the strength of the winds, which can change direction and intensity suddenly.

Low visibility- The normal thing in the Lukla valley is to have an unpredictable weather condition. Sudden fog, fog, storms or even snow happen to be warning. Despite the short distance from Kathmandu (138 km), the weather conditions can be completely different. The plane takes off in extremely open weather in the Nepalese capital and may encounter heavy fog in Lukla.
That was the situation in which I found myself. On board the red helicopter, on the pilot’s left side, I was trying to see something below or ahead.

Tension from the start
That day had started very early for me. In fact, it started amended in the previous one, because I couldn’t sleep before the expectation of starting one of the journeys that promised to be the most challenging of my life.

The package offered by the excellent Himalayan Glacier, one of the best adventure tour operators in Nepal, started with an evening at the luxurious Shanker hotel, where, in the early hours of the morning, a company guide would pick me up to go to Kathmandu Airport .

Evidently I couldn’t sleep. At 4 am, an hour before the scheduled time, I was already in the hotel lobby waiting for the guide. The friendly Gyanendra Khadka arrived with British punctuality. After the transfer in a Hilux (something very common in Kathmandu), we arrived at the airport still in darkness, but full of movement. In exchange for change, two Nepalese vied to carry my backpack.

The Kathmandu International Airport was more like a small, rustic city bus station. Outside, passengers and porters vied for space with aggressive monkeys, who approached menacingly in search of some food.

I asked Gyanendra what time our flight was. He smiled and just said; “Wait”. And I did the most for about two hours. For a moment, I thought I was in a robbery (“this operator has no tickets”, I thought), but the truth is that the flights simply did not leave due to the weather conditions in Lukla.

Every 15 minutes, Gyanendra spoke on the phone, quickly, in that completely unintelligible language. It was around 8 am when the guide informed me that we were going to go by helicopter. I asked if I needed to pay anything more and he reassured me. It was a Plan B, which later proved to be better than Plan A itself. The fog in Lukla had caused many flights to be delayed or canceled and Himalayan Glacier had managed to upgrade, more safely, and at no additional cost.

We got in a car (plus a Hilux), with four more people and a driver, and took a service road inside the airport itself. After walking about five kilometers, we arrived at an area where there was a shed and, around it, the skeleton of several aircraft – planes and helicopters.

In a rustic hangar, each one signed the passenger list and we waited. About 15 minutes later, a red helicopter lands. Quickly, our luggage is loaded and we are accommodated in the cabin. I sat in the front seat, to the pilot’s left. Gyanendra sat in the back, next to a British boy and an American girl.

The aircraft took off quickly and in moments we were flying over the Nepalese capital, which looked more like a large camp with little vertical construction, partially hidden by a mist formed by the mixture of dust and pollution.

In a few minutes, we were already in rural areas, with terraced plantations and a lot of native forest. After a few more moments, visibility became almost nil. The pilot, Ashish Sherchan, remained calm, attentive to the instruments and the situation outside the cabin. Only later, at Nanche Bazaar, did I learn that he was one of the most respected pilots in the Himalayas – he had more than 7,000 hours of flight time.

About 40 minutes later, suddenly, in the fog, the head of the Lukla track appeared. The helicopter flew over its entire length and gently landed on a plateau, right next to the body of a wingless plane.

Sherchan noticed my face of relief and smiled. I pathetically reached out to him and asked for a “High five”. He returned the gesture and winked, signaling that the trip had been completed.

A ground official opened the aircraft door and welcomed:
– Namaste!

I landed in Lukla on April 15, 2013. On September 23 of the same year, a helicopter, red like mine, crashed in the same place while trying to land – the four occupants, all Nepalese, escaped with their lives. But, at this point in the championship, it makes no difference …

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