Lukla
Warbids
yeovilton
riat
zeltweg
sanicole
athens
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
Last April a few of our crewmembers woke up at 2 o’clock at night. A quick shower and a camera check later we found ourselves outside the hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal. Our plan was to visit the Himalayas and who knew, but to get there you have to fly to Lukla, better known as the worlds most dangerous and deadliest airport.

By 3 o’ clock we’re sitting in a small jeep, cruising through the maze that is Kathmandu. The first thunder rolled in while leaving the hotel and by now we’re treated to a nice light show. After a stop to pick up our local guide, we set cruise for Ramechhap airfield. It’s a 4 hour drive and almost the entire route we drive in complete darkness. Only every now and then a lightning lights up the place and shows the mountains surrounding us. There’s quite some traffic on this unpaved road and it looks ridiculously dangerous.

By 7 we arrive at the small airfield of Ramechhap. It’s just a small building surrounded by small shops that make their money off what tourists buy. There’s an apron with room for about 6 planes and a short runway. It’s still early, but it’s already crowded with tourists who are eager to get to Lukla before the afternoon showers arrive. Our guide goes and gets the tickets, but while we’re waiting slowly all groups board and leave. New people arrive, but they also come and go. Eventually we’re pretty much alone for a while. Apparently, weather in the past few days didn’t allow any flights and everyone with a ticket from the previous days gets priority. It’s still only around 10-11 in the morning so we don’t really care. We’re just enjoying the activity on the field and watching the people come and go.

It’s almost noon when it is finally our turn. We enter the terminal building for the first time and it’s everything you would expect somewhere in a small town in the middle of Nepal. There are just a couple of check in desks (two or three). On the left there’s an empty desk where the luggage is dropped off and checked. Basically, it’s just a security agent patting the bags and trying to feel if there’s anything in there. Some have bad luck and have to open their bags. On the right there are two security checks that lead to the active side of the airfield, one for women, one for men. We already have our tickets thanks to the guide and our luggage is dropped off.

The security guy checks our boarding passes, pats a little on our pants and T-shirts and asks what’s in our pockets. He just asks because he has to, but he couldn’t care less about the answer. He asks if we have a lighter or a knife. He doesn’t care for this answer either. He stamps the boarding passes as ‘security checked’. This is by far the strangest airport security experience ever.

By now it’s noon and the first raindrops start to fall. We will be on the next flight of Tara Air, so the excitement is slowly growing. Then, everything comes to a halt. All flights are cancelled due to bad weather on the way to Lukla. There we are, next to the apron for the next 5 hours. It doesn’t rain anymore, there is only some haze. Halfway the afternoon the weather even clears and it’s getting really hot. Slowly, as the afternoon passes by, tourists are leaving the airport. We’re sticking around trying not to die of boredom. We watch a crew changing tires on a Summit Airplane that will crash a few days later. But then around 4, after 9 hours of waiting, there’s some action again. We get the news that flying will start again, but only a couple of flights. First the two other companies start flying, but eventually Tara Air airplanes are coming and going again. Even though we were supposed to be on the ‘next’ flight, we end up going on one of the last flights of the day.

We all know that Lukla has a reputation of being dangerous. The airfield is located on a hillside and doesn’t look like a place where you want anything to go wrong. Come in too low and you will crash on the hillside. Come in too fast or land too far on the short 450 m runway and you will crash on the wall at the end of the runway. Go arounds are not an option. To top things off, the runway isn’t flat but goes up, but at least that slows the plane down. The last deadly accident at that point dated back to May 2017. Knowing it’s been almost two years since anything bad happened, I’m quite excited when I finally board the Dornier Do-228.

The flight to Lukla is only about 20 minutes, maybe even less. We had the luck to be seated just behind the cockpit. The flight itself isn’t all too spectacular. Where it gets interesting is the landing. After some turning between the mountainsides, we can see the runway lined up. We slowly approach runway 06 and as soon as our landing gear is over the concrete we slam into the ground. Not exactly a smooth landing, but ‘necessity knows no laws’… We slow down, but at the end of the runway we go into a steep right turn and the pilots seem to be using the apron as an extension of the runway. Engines still running, we exit the aircraft and make our way to the airport exit. We are at Lukla, we see the Himalaya and more importantly, we’re safe and sound! The 10 hours wait payed off.

Our hotel is located only a couple of meters from the runway. While going to our room we hear the last planes passing by.

The next morning at 6 o’clock the first planes touch down. A sound that beats any alarm clock. After breakfast we do a little walk around the airfield and the setting is unbelievable, especially with this clear weather. Standing at both ends of the runway is quite the experience. You don’t need to know anything about aviation to see there’s not a lot of room for error here. The planes are barely above the runway when they touch down and some seem to barely lift off when they reach the end on take off.

For the sake of the story I will skip the part where we go hiking for two days and fly back to Lukla with a helicopter which in itself is quite the adventure. So fast forward to the day we should have been flying back to Ramechhap. Our guide had fixed us one of the first flights out of Lukla. Again around 6:30 we found ourselves in a terminal building. Just like before the security check was a joke and soon we found ourselves sitting in a more than full terminal building. Not long after check in the clouds crept upwards and reached the end of the runway. Every now and then they moved up and then disappeared just as fast as they had come. Still, on the way to Ramechhap the fog didn’t go anywhere and all flights were cancelled.

The restaurant area of our hotel was filled with flags and t-shirts of groups that had reached base camp of the Mount Everest. Most of them had inspiring quotes or thank you notes. One said: ‘I came, I saw, I shit, I spew’. And that is exactly what one of our crew members (we’re not going to say who ?) was doing the day we had to leave Lukla. In case you are not familiar with the toilets of Nepal, picture a hole in the ground. After 7 hours of waiting we were done! Our guide decided to book a helicopter instead.

The helicopter platform is on the other side of the airfield but there is a small path that leads around the runway to the helicopters. We just sat there for a while, watching helicopters come and go. Our ride arrives, we get in, fly over the runway and head towards Kathmandu. We think back on the past few days and one of the things we can agree on is that Lukla is a special place, but not as deadly or dangerous as it is often portrayed. On busy days there’s constant flying and there are also a lot of helicopters coming and going. An accident every few years doesn’t seem to be too extreme.

The next morning at the hotel breakfast we hear the news that a plane crashed in Lukla. Slowly pictures start to appear and we see the plane of Summit Air that we saw at Ramechhap earlier. The one where they were changing the right tire. It apparently just skid of the runway on take off and flew into the helicopters that were parked at the spot we were standing 12 hours earlier. 3 people died, including some police officers who are stationed next to the runway. The same guys who had let us take some pictures on the field two days earlier. (They actually grow crops and have goats in the grass strip right next to the runway.) All of sudden our Lukla experience got a new dimension. Maybe it was more dangerous than how we perceived it. Maybe we dodged the bullet thanks to a sick crew member and a caring guide. No matter what, another one to tick off our bucket list.

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