A 30 to 40-minute flight from Kathmandu will take us to Lukla, a small town at the foot of Mt. Everest. One of the world’s most dangerous airports in Lukla is the gateway to the Everest region. Also known by the name Tenzing Hillary airport, this little airport at Lukla has a short runway. However, as many as 50 flights take off and land here each day during peak seasons.
The alternatives to reach Lukla require several days of trekking. To cut short the time period, hikers normally take a flight to Lukla and begin trekking from there. The world-famous airport at Lukla is characteristic in the sense that it was the local villagers’ active contribution, rather than the government of Nepal. Sir Edmund Hillary, who first summited Mt. Everest with Tenzing Sherpa, felt reaching the trailhead took a long time. In fact, the active participation and contribution of the local villagers made it all possible.
Tenzing Hillary Airport
Lukla airport got the name of Tenzing Hillary Airport in the year 2008. And the reason is very obvious to all of us. To honor Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Sherpa, the airport got its name. It was during the year 1953. The airport actually came into operation in September 1971 only. There is no doubt that this is a very small, yet a busy airport. Luka airport is one of the most dangerous airports in the world. The entire adventure travelers know this fact. And the reason is its location and short runway.
Meanwhile, Nepal’s infamous airport at Lukla has many interesting facts and history. These facts make it unique from the rest of the world’s airports. The strip sits on a mountainside at an altitude of 2,800m (9,186ft.). The asphalt runway is only 527m (1,729ft.) long and 20m (65ft.) wide with 12 degrees slope from north to south. Trekking route to Everest base camp starts from Lukla.
What seems challenging about Lukla airport is the unpredictable weather conditions. Flight cancelations are frequent incidences, usually during bad weather settings. Moreover, there’s no advanced equipment such as radar systems and air navigation at Lukla airport. The weather here can deteriorate in matter of minutes. Clouds can build up very quickly thereby making the visibility very low. Handling of an airplane in airport at high altitude like Luka pose threats owing to the low air pressure. Evidently, Kathmandu to Lukla flights take off early in the mornings, only when the sky is clear.
There have been several mishaps at Lukla airport in the past, owing to the short runway, fluctuating weather, and uneven topography. The pilots perform take-off and landing visually as there is no navigation equipment. Abrupt closure of the airport is quite common due to the loss of visibility under the Visibility Flight Rules (VFR). The inconsistent weather and the falling fog on the short runway increases the chances of crashing.
On the contrary, in case of good weather, the flight to Lukla is thrilling and enthralling. The scenic flight from Kathmandu to Lukla (on a clear bright day) adds the real meaning of natural magnificence to every traveler’s soul. Spectacular views of mountains and variegated landscapes of the Himalayas will greet you whole-heartedly!
Safety standards for Lukla flights
Kathmandu-Lukla-Kathmandu flights usually take off during early mornings, that is, when the skies are clear. And the airport regularly closes from mid to late morning when the strong south-west winds create crosswind or tailwinds. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) has set high standards for pilots to overcome the difficulties of successful landing. According to these standards, only experienced pilots who have completed at least 100 short take-off and landing (STOL) flights. In addition, the pilots must have completed ten flights into Lukla with a certified instructor.
Flights to Lukla
The airlines that operate from Kathmandu to Lukla are Tara Airlines, Sita Air, and Summit Air. Goma Airlines and Simrik Airlines terminated their operations to Lukla airport for quite some time now. Established in 2009, Tara Air uses aircraft from Yeti Airlines. Currently, Tara Airlines operate a fleet of seven STOL (Short Take off & Landing) aircrafts, five Twin Otter DHC 6/300 and two Dornier DO 228 aircrafts. These aircrafts can carry not more than 13 passengers at a time.
Summit Air, formerly known as Goma Air, began its operation in 2011. They rebranded themselves to Summit Air in 2017. Starting operation with two Cessna Grand Caravan 208 B, scheduled flights through Turbolet LET-L 410 UVPE-20 STOL aircraft began later in 2014. The Turbolet aircraft can carry 19 passengers at a time.
Sita Air is a very popular domestic airline in Nepal that started commercial flights in 2003. This airline offers scheduled as well as charter services using four Dornier DO-228 STOL HERO aircrafts. This aircraft can carry 13 passengers at a time.
Interesting facts about Lukla Airport
- As many as 50 flights take off and land at Lukla airport, especially during the peak trekking and climbing seasons.
- The renaming of Lukla airport to Tenzing Hillary Airport in 2008 was to honor Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay – the first confirmed persons to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.
- Considering the altitude and geographical location besides its short runway, Lukla is one of the most dangerous airports in the world.
- At one end of Lukla airport, there is a huge mountainous wall, and a steep drop into the valley below at the other end.
- Before the construction of airport in Lukla, the only way to Lukla from Kathmandu was traveling by road to Jiri, and then hike to Lukla in about 5 days.
- In 1964, Lukla airport was born but operations did not start until 1971. And black-top paving began only in 2001.
- The short runway at Lukla airport has a total length of 527m (1,729ft.) and a breadth of 20m (65ft.). This can cause difficulty in the landing and take-offs of the aircrafts.
Other lesser-known facts about Lukla airport
- Pedestrians use the short runway, which is crucial for passage, to cross through either side of the runway.
- The credit of building Lukla airport goes to Sir Edmund Hillary and not the government of Nepal.
- As the local farmers did not give up their flat farmlands, the airport stands at its present location. Edmund Hillary bought the land, where the present airport stands, from local Sherpas for $2,650.
- With the involvement of Sherpa people, well known for their mountaineering skills, Sir Edmund Hillary was able to construct the airport.
- There is no air navigation or radar system at Lukla airport; there is a use of radio communication for landing and take-offs.
- For more than 20 years, Most Extreme Airports, broadcast on The History Channel rated Lukla airport as the most dangerous airport in the world.
- Weather condition at Lukla airport is unpredictable. Sometimes, travelers need to get off from the plane even at the last minute before taking off.
Is it risky to fly to Lukla?
After knowing the various facts about Lukla airport, the only question that may explode in your mind is “Is it really risky to fly to Lukla?”
Well, the short answer would be Yes! But, on the contrary looking at the past records it is not as dangerous as one reckons. We can gaze at Lukla as one of the most dangerous airports in the world considering the topography, weather, location, airport size, and traffic volume. It is also true that the short runway in Lukla airport adds up to the extremity.
The only factor that makes Lukla airport intimidating is the fluctuating weather. Else, flying to Lukla isn’t risky at all. Given the various factors, only helicopters and small fixed-wing propeller planes land in and take off from Lukla airport. Overall, places like Lukla give the real thrill of traveling, so it is worth an attempt. In addition to that, if you are heading to Everest Base Camp or Gokyo Ri, then Lukla airport is the gateway flight. This flight is almost unavoidable unless choosing an alternate route. The alternative routes to Lukla require longer time duration, which include drive to Jiri, Phaplu or Salleri.