Lukla airport. Loosely known as the world’s most dangerous airport. It’s actually a landing strip cut out of the side of a mountain with the steepest gradient you’ll ever see. They have resurfaced the strip with tarmac and thus much safer than what it used to be. Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay themselves came to help build this airport not long after they historical summit of the world’s tallest peak in hope of better access to both medical and education. With very little real estate and resources to work with – Sir Edmund had the villagers to come down to the landing strip after dinner and walk on them as much as they can to flatten the surface.
We took off at Kathmandu from an altitude of 1,400m and in no time we reach cruising altitude. Note that cruising altitude for these Dornier planes aren’t your usual commercial jets of 40,000 feet. This on the other hand cruises just above any obstacles that it will encounter. In between valleys or just above houses.
Sitting next to the buzzing turboprop can be a gnarly experience. Passengers should have noticed that when boarding the aircraft as the sole flight attendant will go around passing cotton balls and coffee candy. Cotton is the eco-friendly earplug for your ears. Yet with all the noise and fear of crashing (Agni Air Flight CHT plunged and killed 15 of the 21 passengers on board less than 4 months back) the Himalayan range with its towering glory stares you back and keeps you calm. You don’t understand why but somehow it seems they are calling you to come and see for yourself. Oh, the buzzing has made me slow and stupid – they actually have a name for this feeling. It’s called summit fever.
All throughout the flight you anticipate the landing. World’s most dangerous airport. How scary can it get? The old lady from Norway sitting in front doesn’t seem to be intimidated at all. Chatting with local possibly their guide/porter punctuated by laughter so clear it cuts through everything.
It is a thirty minutes flight and I keep peeking out the window in search of the landing strip. “It cannot be far now” I told myself. The white Dornier with blue and red decals took a left bank negotiating itself around yet another mountain then levels out. The pilot radios in and the strip came to view. So small you cannot even make out what it was. Maybe a balcony made by Yeti himself?
The steep gradient at Lukla airport was made by purpose. As the length of the strip is only 460 meters, most planes will not have enough runway to stop without the aid of gravity. A regular international airport like the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) has a runway of 4,000 meters.
The first pilot (on the left) has the control and he pulls on the stick hard as the wheels touches ground. A hard bump follows and the co-pilot immediately pushes the throttle all the way back (the Dornier have reverse thrust) while the brakes engage.
The pilot steers the aircraft to the right and into the parking area. Shuts down the engine on the left because that is the side you get in and out. World’s most dangerous airport. Level cleared.