Known as the gateway to Everest, Lukla’s Tenzing Hillary Airport in Nepal has also been given the nickname “the world’s most dangerous airport.” And not without reason. Over the past 20 years, there have been seven deadly accidents, killing over 50 passengers and crew. So what is it that makes landing at Lukla so perilous?
Lukla is only a 30-minute flight from Kathmandu. However, the latter sits at 1,400 meters above sea level, and the former at 2,859. The small mountain village settlement runway saw close to 130,000 passengers in 2019. Most head for trekking expeditions in the Himalayas. Some are on their way to attempt the even more precarious climb of Mount Everest.
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Landing vs. mountaineering odds
About 800 people now climb Everest every year. In the season of 2019, there were nine deaths on the mountain. All in all, over 300 people have perished on their way up or down from the summit. So in comparison, the odds of making a safe landing at Lukla are not that offputting.
Tenzing Hillary Airport, named after Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, the first two people to climb Mount Everest, has a veritable concoction of all the things that present a challenge for planes and their pilots.
Not only does it sit at a high altitude (although nowhere near as high as Daocheng Yading Airport in Tibet at 4,411 meters), but it is flanked by near 7,000-meter peaks – Kusum Kanguru at 6,367, and Numbur at 6,959. The conditions in the valley often generate wicked wind shear.
No go-around procedure
The thinner air at high altitude makes it more difficult for engines to generate thrust. Meanwhile, the reduced resistance also makes it harder to slow the plane down, which means the longer the runway, the better.
However, Lukla Airport runway is not very accommodating to that end. Made out of paved asphalt and sitting on a narrow mountain shelf, it measures no more than 527 meters. A well-trained track-and-field athlete could run it in about 60 seconds, a bit longer when you factor in the altitude. It is so short that it has a 12% uphill incline to assist planes in slowing down as they land.
Due to the mountainous terrain, there are no go-around procedures at the airport. This means that once a pilot has commenced an approach, they are committed to landing. There are no radar or navigation systems at the airport. The pilots are completely dependent on what they can see from the cockpit.
Limited range of planes
Because of these conditions, only helicopters and short take-off-and-landing turboprop planes such as De Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters, Pilatus PC-6 Porters, Dornier Do-228s, and L-410 Turbolets are allowed to operate to the airport. In October 2008, Yeti Airlines Flight 103, operated by a DHC-6, crashed on final approach during heavy fog and caught fire. Eighteen passengers and crew died, while the captain miraculously survived.
Up to 50% of flights canceled
As anyone who has been to the Himalayas knows, the weather in the area is extremely unpredictable. Due to the aforementioned lack of go-around possibilities, this means that flights from Kathamandu often turn around if there is a sudden shift in the conditions at Lukla. During the monsoon season, about 50% of flights are canceled because of low visibility. It is also common for the airport to close during mid to late mornings due to crosswinds.
Have you ever flown into Lukla Aiport? What is the most interesting landing you have experienced? Tell us about it in the comments.