FLYING AT THE WORLDS DEADLIEST AIRPORT

The blogpost below is about my personal experiences when I went flying at Lukla; Nepal. I had the luck to go there as a member of the Aviation PhotoCrew. There will be a full report at our website soon that will cover more of the background and will have more pictures by other members. I highly recommend to go and visit the APC website.

It’s 2 o’clock at night, I’m lying in bed in a hotel in Kathmandu; Nepal. My alarm rings, but I’m already awake for 15 minutes, thinking about what today will bring. I take a quick shower and check my camera gear. Today will not be good day to have an empty GoPro battery or to forget a charger, cause today we’re going to the Himalaya for a couple of days. Although decent hiking gear will be important from tomorrow on, I’m more focussed on my camera gear. To get to the Himalaya 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 I can not recommend this for those who suffer from motion sickness or are easily scared by bad roads and lack of traffic rules.

Eventually by 7 we arrive at the small airfield of Ramechhap. It’s juist 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.

Locals overlooking the activity at Ramechhap.

It’s almost noon when it is finally our turn. I 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. I already have my ticket thanks to the guide and my wife dropped of our luggage. I go to the security guard and hope he doesn’t make a fuss about my camera bag and the camera I’m wearing. He checks my boarding pass, pats a little on my pants and t-shirt and asks what’s in my pockets. Batteries is the correct answer, but he doesn’t care. He just asks because he has to. He asks if I have lighter or a knife. I answer him that I don’t carry any of those things. He stamps my boarding pass as ‘security checked’. This is by far the strangest airport security experience I’ll ever have.

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 Air plane 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 450m. 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 dates 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. I had the luck to be seated just after the cockpit. The only thing preventing me to look inside the cockpit is a halfopen curtain, guess I’m lucky. The flight itself isn’t all too spectacular. It’s just like any other flight. The views are nice though. Where it gets interesting is the landing. I already opened the curtain so I now have a view inside the cockpit and I can see through the windows as well. After some turning I can see the runway lined up. At this point I’m too excited to think about everything that can go wrong. We slowly approach runway 06 and as soon as our landing gear is over the concrete we slam into the ground. Not what I call a smooth landing, but ‘necessity knows no laws’… We slow down, but to my feeling not enough. 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.

Almost there. Moments before touch down at Lukla.

Our hotel is located only a couple of meters from the runway. While going to our room we hear the last planes passing by. My hotel room even has a view on the runway. In my excitement I forget that the first flights come in early in the morning and our hotel doesn’t exactly seem to be sound proof.

Indeed, the next morning at 6 o’clock I hear the first plane touch down. A sound that beats any alarm clock. Half an hour later I’m standing next to the runway to shoot some photos. The setting is unbelievable, certainly with this clear weather. After breakfast we do a little walk all around the airfield. 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.

 

 

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. That’s a story for another blogpost. I’ll 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 ourself in a terminal building. The owner of our hotel (who also seemed to be the boss of the local school) knew the right people and got us on an early flight. Just like before the security check was a joke and soon I found myself sitting in a more than full terminal building with people who hiked the Mount Everest and fucked up their lungs in the process. It felt like a hastily formed quarantaine you see in a disaster movie about a pandemic disease. Soon 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.

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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. On said: ‘I came, I saw, I shit, I spew’. And that is exactly what one of our crew members 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. So now try to imagine being sick, stuck at an overcrowded airport and only having a hole in the ground where a lot of people had lacked the skill of aiming. After 7 hours of waiting we were done! Our guide decided to book a helicopter instead, so we all went back to the hotel to wait. I didn’t even have time to drink a coke because as soon as I entered the hotel a plane passed by the window. Lukla was open again…

Back to the airport and this time there wasn’t even anyone at the security check. I just walked in. The people who looked sick were now alive and well, trying to make their way to the apron, hoping to get away from this place. But not one plane left the airport. In a couple of minutes the fog had come up again. Helicopter ride it is!

 

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 and we fly over the runway of Lukla heading towards Kathmandu. A flight that saves us another 4 hours drive from Ramechhap to 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 portraid. 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 that bad.

The next morning I make my way down to the hotel breakfast when we hear the news that a plane crashed in Lukla. Slowly pictures start to appear and we see the 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.

All of sudden our Lukla experience got a new dimension. Maybe it was more dangerous than how I perceived it. Maybe we dodged the bullet thanks to a sick crew member and a caring guide. No matter what, I’m grateful for the experience and happy to tick it off my bucketlist.

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