As if being situated at 10,000 feet above sea level, in the Himalayas, didn’t make it hard enough for pilots trying to land on or take off from Tenzing-Hillary Airport, in Lukla, Nepal, the short and narrow runway ends at the edge of a precipice, making it one of the most dangerous airports in the world, and definitely the scariest.
Lukla is the gateway to the Himalayas, so despite its reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous airports, it’s actually one of the busiest in Nepal. Mountain climbers trying to conquer the world’s highest mountains have to land here before beginning their journey on foot, so small airplanes and helicopters land here every day. For most mountaineers, the landing on Tenzing-Hillary Airport is a lot more scarier than climbing Everest, and taking into account its extreme location and difficult weather condition, that’s perfectly understandable. Even on its best days, the airport is only available for takeoffs and landings for only a few hours, before the fog sets in or strong winds start to blow. And even then, a miscalculation of just a meter or two on landing can cause a plane to either hit the side of the mountain, or go through a fence and hit a rock wall. Taking off is no walk in the park either, as failure to build enough speed before the end of the runway can lead to a crash in the abyss below.
Photo: Plane Landings
Carved out of the side of a mountain, Lukla’s extreme airport was built by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1965, 12 years after he became the first man to conquer Mount Everest. Today, mountain climbers can just jump on a plane in Kathmandu and arrive in a matter of hours, instead of taking a daylong bus trip and trekking for five straight days. But you’re not going to see any Boeings or Airbuses landing on Tenzing-Hillary’s single runway. The bumpy asphalt track is just 65 feet wide, and can only accommodate small aircrafts like the Twin Otter or Dronier. With a gradient of 12%, it’s also one of the steepest runways in the world. Planes have to go around the mountain and land uphill which helps stop the aircraft before it hits the fence and crashes into a cliff, but pilots have to reserve propeller even before touch down. Navigation is done by sight only, and pilots have to negotiate thick clouds and strong winds in order to safely land or take-off from Lukla.
Photo: Author Shots
As you can imagine, Tenzing-Hillary has had its share of accidents, although not as many as most people would expect, considering all of the above. In 1973 and 1991, Royal Nepal Airlines DHC-6′s crashed on approach from Kathmandu, in 2004, a Yeti Airlines Twin Otter crashed on approach, killing all 3 crew members, but the worst accident took place in October of 2008 when a Yeti Airlines Twin Otter crash-landed in foggy weather and caught fire, killing 18 passengers.