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Landing At Lukla: The World's Scariest Airport

©istockphoto/fotoVoyager

©istockphoto/fotoVoyager

The tiny Twin Otter danced around the mountains, and my palms clung to the armrests. Through the porthole window, I could make out terraced patties, tin-roofed farmhouses, and numerous mountain villages in the Himalayan foothills. Between the thin fog of this deep-green valley, jagged snowcapped peaks teasingly surfaced under a veil of mist. The little twin-engine plane banked left, and followed the Dudh-Kosi River, the milk river, named not only for its color, but because locals believe it to be the breast milk of the goddesses on Chomolungma, or as we know it—Mt. Everest.

Our plane came out of its turn, and through the open door of the cockpit, we could make out a short, single runway, its northern edge running off the edge of a massive cliff and the south side ending with a wall. Curiously, the airport was very close, we were still high, and I was trying to figure out how we had a chance at landing with this altitude.

Then the Twin Otter began to dive.

Lukla is the first town and gateway to the Khumbu, the northeastern region of Nepal and home to the highest mountain range in the world. The town itself is a minuscule outpost, with shops, cafes, and restaurants that cater mainly to Western trekkers and climbers; but the town’s claim to fame is its airport, which is so tricky to navigate, that pilots must receive special training just to fly there. The 35-minute flight brings weaves through lush valleys, soaring cliffs, and enchanting mountain panoramas.

©istockphoto/cunfek

©istockphoto/cunfek

Tenzing-Hillary Airport, named for the duo who first summited Everest in 1953, features a single 1,500-foot (460-meter) north-to-south runway situated on the side off a cliff at an elevation of 9,100-feet (2,900-meters). Its location between the mountains and foothills leaves the airport exposed to unpredictable weather conditions. Fog and storms loom over the town for days, cutting it off from flights landing or taking off from Kathmandu, while low visibility conditions provide little room for error. It’s not uncommon for trekkers to be trapped for days because of a lack of flights. Compounding the difficulty, the tarmac runs upward at an 8-degree angle upon landing, and downwind on takeoff, so planes get airborne just by flying off the edge of the runway. Those who want to experience Everest before Lukla Airport must walk five days from the nearest town of Jiri.

The Lukla airport was devised by Edmund Hillary himself, who imagined an airstrip where he could fly in supplies for his school and hospital project near the Sherpa town of Namche Bazaar. The rough site against the hillside was flattened by rolling logs and having Sherpas line-dance across the future tarmac. When the Sherpas encountered a large immovable boulder, they would simply dig a hole and toss it in. When daring Swiss pilots made the first approaches in the mid-1960’s they found that the upward slope decelerated the planes faster, while the downward slope provided extra acceleration on takeoff. Because the planes are so high up, the trick to landing is having the aircraft initiate a near nose-dive into the valley, and gradually pull up, meeting the runway head-on. As our plane began to pull up from the dive, the hillside and the runway appeared startlingly close.

Our pilot threw the engines into reverse and with a reassuring thud, the Twin Otter touched down on the runway, taxi’ed uphill, and took its parking spot just to the right of an imposing concrete wall. I released my death-grip on the armrest, exited the plane with a group of fearful trekkers; their faces still struggling to find color, and breathed in the pristine, cool air at 9,000-feet. It was just another typical day at the world’s scariest airport.

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