What’s in a flight? Lukla Landing

So many of you have heard about it. Some may shudder at the mere thought of it. There are those of you who have been there, and those who cannot wait to. Yet again, there are some who will do everything possible to avoid it at all costs even if it means an additional 50 hours of walking.

That place is none other than Lukla Airport, described by some as a nail biting terrifying landing from hell and others, as the most exhilarating experience of the entire Everest base camp trip.

‘Lukla’ means a place of many goats and sheep and is the name given to the small village in the heart of the Solukhumbu. Prior to 1964. the village was not well known until Sir Edmund Hillary decided to build an airport there, meaning that provisions no longer needed to be carried for 4-5 days all the way from Jiri, but could instead be flown in. Of course, that also meant access to the region by people. Lukla now provides the perfect show stopper, with its runway centre stage to various Twin Otter and Dornier Airplane models.

Hillary’s idea was initially to build the runway on some flat farm land nearby but many of the local farmers did not want to sell their land. Hillary then paid $2500 to the local Sherpa for the current piece of sloping land. With the aid of the villagers, they tilled the ground and leveled the soil as much as possible. Still dissatisfied with the stability of the soil, our insightful Kiwi got a brainwave. He bought liquor for the locals and then got them to perform a foot stomping merry dance to flatten the runway.  It remained that way until 2001 when it was finally paved.

So why the fear and trepidation of this runway? Well the village lies at an elevation of 2845m surrounded by souring Himalaya peaks. The runway is a mere 527m meaning that a fit runner can cover the distance in just 60 seconds. Add to that the fact that the runway slopes up at a 12% gradient.

In 2010 it claimed its fame amongst the worlds Most Extreme Airports in a History Channel broadcast.

With a rock wall at one end and a steep valley drop off at the other, pilots coming in have one chance at landing and rely on extensive training. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal requires that only experienced pilots who have completed at least 100 short-takeoff-and-landing missions, over a period of one year, as well as 10 Lukla landings with an instructor, may land at Lukla.

Early mornings at Lukla generally bring a light north-easterly wind but by mid morning it shifts to south-easterly often creating tailwinds and crosswinds. For this reason most flights land and take off in the morning. Regardless, weather in the Himalaya is highly unpredictable and sudden mist and fog can quickly blanket the airport, meaning that if you are en-route to Lukla from Kathmandu you will soon find yourself being re-routed back to the city.

We have been told that in the old Lukla airport building there was a sign that read, “We do not fly in bad weather, as clouds often have mountains in them.”  And this is just as well! But if you are going to get stuck somewhere I would rather it be in Lukla than Kathmandu. Small shops, unique coffee and cake bars, the Kemgon Gompa, Lukla airport viewpoint and jaw dropping scenery.

Lukla airport

The fun, excitement and exhilaration of the landing and takeoff, just add to the allure of the Everest Base Camp Trek.

by Debra Bouwer

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