How to survive the world’s most dangerous airport
A while ago I already mentioned how unprepared I went to Nepal. I just had no time to read up on our upcoming trip and since I had booked the whole package with a local operator it wasn’t really necessary either. This turned out to be good because if I’d known earlier that Lukla Tenzing-Hillary Airport is the most dangerous airport in the world, I’d have had sleepless nights over it. While reading Lonely Planet in the week before the trip, I actually read some negative things about Lukla, that flights often get delayed because of the weather and that occasionally crashes occur. I’m not a fan of flying, however I figured it would just become a part of the adventure. My colleague, who had made the flight before, told me I’d better prepare for quite something, so that’s what I did…
What makes Lukla Airport the most dangerous airport in the world, is the sometimes very poor weather situation as well as the short runway. If the pilot fails to break in time upon landing, you crash into the mountain. If he fails to pull up in time while taking off, you skid off the mountain. Just so you know…
During our trek briefing the day before departure, we were told we’d be on the first flight out to Lukla with Tara Air. Somehow the name Tara Air sounded a bit more comforting than Buddha Air or Yeti Airlines. We could each carry 10 kilos of checked luggage and 5 kilos of handluggage, which was exactly the amount we planned on carrying on the trek. The plan was that we’d meet our guide during the trek briefing in Kathmandu, but he got stuck in Lukla. He just finished another trek, was due to come home for one night to see his family and then fly back to Lukla with us. However, due to poor weather in Lukla no airlines were able to fly in or out that day.
The morning we planned on starting our trek to Everest Base Camp, we left the hotel early and made our way over to the airport. It looked to be yet another gloomy and smoggy day in the city but we had no idea what it would be like in Lukla. Upon arrival at Kathmandu airport, we were met by total chaos. As we were about to make our way over to the Tara Airlines desk, a Nepali made his way over to us and asked: “are you Martin?”. When we confirmed, he smiled at me and said “sorry, I didn’t know how to pronounce your name”. He explained to us that he was also working for the agency we booked with and that he was supposed to fly out with three English guys the day before, but that they couldn’t because of the weather. It didn’t look a whole lot better for today, but he was trying to fix a chopper to make sure we could still get to Lukla that day. We’d heard horrid stories of people who got stuck in Lukla but had to get out so had to charter a chopper, costing them a couple thousand euros extra, so the thought of that didn’t sound too appealing. We did have some extra time scheduled for weather delays but were pretty eager to get to the mountains as soon as possible as well. When he told us that the surcharge would be about $40 per person, we immediately agreed and let him make all necessary arrangements.
Within 10 minutes we were put on a scale together with all of our luggage and they made passport copies. “Well, at least they know our identities when we go down” was my first thought and another five minutes later we jumped into a truck that took us to another part of the airport, where the chopper field was. We were kept in the dark most of the time about a possible departure time, so we just hung around the heliport for a while. Right next to us was the Turkish Airlines Airbus that had crashed at Kathmandu a couple of months earlier and we were told that even though it may not look that damaged from the outside, it was too expensive to repair it and fly it back, so they just left it there. I was pretty amazed by it, having some sort of weird fascination for plane crashes and all those kind of things…
After a while, we were urged to crawl into the chopper and I was amazed by the fact that there was so much staff around us. There was the English pilot, a man with a radio, someone to handle our luggage and at least three more men whose purpose was unclear to me. As we sat in the chopper, tightly together and with our daypacks on our laps, the pilot started wearing his helmet and one of the men attached a bottle of oxygen to his seat. Witnessing this, I frowned but decided to keep my mouth shut. It surely was all standard procedure…
Before we knew it, we took off and although I’ve been in helicopters quite some times before, I still was a bit worried. The Nepali guide was sitting next to me and was smiling all the time. I think my anxiety must have looked amusing because he kept on laughing at me. As soon as we were up in the sky, I was happy that our adventure had finally begun. We flew right through the haze and as I was looking out of the window 5 minutes after take off, I saw a runway right below us. I pointed it out to the guide and he told me “yes, we’re going back!” Going back? What the heck? Within ten minutes of our departure we were back at the heliport. As we were let off the chopper, I overheard the pilot saying to one of the technical guys that it was too hazy to climb over a certain ridge and that he didn’t feel good about it. The company took us to their hangar where we were given some tea and snacks. Nobody knew when the weather would clear, so we just hung out for a while. We got access to the wifi and I notified home (and Facebook) that we were still in Kathmandu. About an hour later we were taken back to the chopper. The pilot was listening to the radio and another helicopter that stood next to us lifted off. Another five minutes later, he nodded and said “he’s gotten through, we’re leaving!” and within another couple of minutes, we were off again.
Moments after departure, as soon as we left the smog of the city behind, the Himalayas appeared in the distance for the first time. That’s also when the wind started to blow. The chopper was being blown away by the gushing wind but the pilot didn’t seem to bother, I think he was actually having a lot of fun. At some point, he opened the window, grabbed his iPhone and hung out of the helicopter window, capturing the snowcapped mountains of the Himalayas in front of us. I had no idea how he was actually flying the chopper but I guessed that if he was doing this, there would be no reason to worry.
The flight was extremely bumpy nonetheless and every now and then we’d take a dive down and I felt like I was in a roller coaster. At the time I figured we couldn’t be that much further away from the Lukla, the chopper crossed a ridge just below us and took an enormous vertical dive down into the valley. I shrieked and grabbed Martijn’s arm, yelling “Oh My God – what is he doing?” It was only then when when I saw the tarmac of Lukla Airport down below us. At the same time, I saw an aircraft coming from the left and right at the moment I thought we were going to crash into each other, the choppper made another dive and landed at the heliport. We made it!
We left the helicopter and were given our bags. Adrenaline kicked in and as I was still staring into the void, I was urged to leave the helipad as the chopper was about to take off again. As it turned out, the pilot was actually on a rescue mission to Camp 3 at Mount Everest, where he had to pick someone up who had gotten sick or injured. As that was a medical evacuation, he had to fly to Lukla area anyway, that’s why we got the cheap ride along. We were met by our guide Jangbu and later we heard that this pilot is actually one of the craziest yet skilled pilots in Nepal. Who else would fly up to Camp 3 to rescue someone and hang out of the window while steering with his knees? Later that afternoon, the sky cleared in Kathmandu as well so most people who’d been waiting were able to fly out.
The way back was a lot less adventurous. No delays, not too bumpy and arrival in Kathmandu was smooth and solid. However, I was still very happy I made it back safe and sound. Some people on the trek told me their flights had been horrible and that they thought they were going to die…
You obviously can’t influence whether a plane will make it to its destination without trouble, however, our tips below will hopefully help you to make your experience in flying to Lukla a bit more comfortable:
– Make sure you are booked on the first possible flight as the weather is usually best in the morning. Generally, afternoons in Lukla are always cloudy, as it’s at 2.800 meters above sealevel….
– I don’t think it really matters which airline you book. They all seemed to fly similar aircraft and after doing some research, none of them has an excellent safety record.
– If you want to avoid your luggage being searched on the way back to KTM, make sure to put a pair of smelly socks on top of your baggage, most of the time the employee won’t even bother looking any further, especially when you’re the so-manieth of the day. We took a small rock that we found at Everest Base Camp and hid in one of our socks…
– Always make sure you have some spare days to fly back to Kathmandu and don’t book your international flight on the same day or the day after. We ended up being back in Lukla two days earlier than planned, however we still decided to fly out as soon as possible because of upcoming weather changes. Jangbu told us that at some point, a client of his got stuck for nine days. Just imagine…
– If you can’t fly out by plane, you will usually get a refund. However this will never be enough to cover the cost of a chopper, expect to pay $500 or more per person if you have to charter one. Helicopter companies are smart and they will set a price depending on the situation, if they know you have to get out, they will easily raise the rate for you.
– In case you don’t want to fly, there’s only one option: walking! You cannot reach Lukla by road but walking is done a lot, too. It’s about a 2-3 day walk to Jiri, from here it’s a twelve hour bus ride to Kathmandu. From what we’ve heard, the trek is quite demanding (lots of up and down) so just be prepared!
And just to give you an idea, we made a short movie of our arrival and departure. I decided not to add any music so you can hear the sounds of the aircraft and you can hear us shriek when the pilot dived down. I hope the bumpiness doesn’t make you sick but it at least gives you an idea how bumpy it actually was. Oh, and don’t forget to wave to the neighbors!
If this post makes you wonder whether you should still go: YES! Planes crash everywhere and although all the airlines that serve Lukla are on the Black List of the EU, I don’t think that this should keep you from going to the Everest region. As much as 1.000 visitors enter the area in high season each day (yes, you will not be the only one) and no accidents have occurred during recent years. In addition, locals told me that Lukla isn’t actually the world’s most dangerous airport, it’s only in 4th position. But if I’d told you that, you wouldn’t have read the article in the first way, right?
Want to read more about Nepal? You may enjoy these!
– Everest Base Camp trek: the movie
– Nepal is safe! Why you should go there NOW!
– A head full of emotions: about my trek to Everest Base Camp
Thank you for sharing!
I’m glad you survived and even though Nepal has never been on my list of places TO go I think I’ll now put it on a list of place to actively avoid!
haha 🙂 please don’t it’s a great place and you can easily travel over land, too!
Had to laugh about the smelly socks on top of the luggage. I am sure there is a lot of truth in that and well worth trying.
I have never flown in a chopper myself, but hope to someday. For this pilot to fly this high altitude rescue is amazing!
I hope you can fly in a chopper one day, it’s really a unique experience, so different than a small plane as the chopper moves a bit more!
Thank you. I appreciate this. I hope to someday too! 🙂
Awesome story but very happy to read you made safely to the ground!!!
I haven’t taken a helicopter flight ever and while it’s really high on my bucket list, this one sounds like one I would gladly skip;-)
Thanks Lotte! Heli’s are amazing but so scary as they move so easily!
I can imagine the sensation of completely different than flying in an airplane!
Yeah, it was quite an experience…
that really sounds scary and adventurous! I can imagine how nervous you were. I don’t mind flying but in this situation I’d be probably freaking out. I’m really glad that in the end everything was just fine!
Scary yet fun! I freaked out for a short time but then realized that the pilot would most likely want to stay alive, too. That helped a lot!
What an adventure!! The flight sounds terrifying, glad you made it there and back ok! That’s too bad the helicopter was going on a rescue mission, but it’s nice you had a cheaper flight out. Sounds like a great time–would love to make a trip to Everest base camp!
Yeah quite and adventure indeed. I hope you can make it to EBC one day, you guys would love it!
Literally laughed out loud reading your post – my partner is utterly afraid of flying and during our flight to Belize this past December, we came into some bad weather where the plane was constantly dropping and rising.
I could only imagine taking him to the worlds most dangerous airport! haha Just like you, it would be one of those things I’d leave him in the dark about so he wouldn’t lose any sleep. haha
That’s probably the best idea – and don’t have him talk to fellow travellers, too!
That sounds really scary, but definitely worth facing your fears! It seems like as though it is dangerous, they do take measures to make it as safe as possible. Thanks for sharing your story about this dangerous airport 🙂
In the end, it was well worth the scare because the area is so gorgeous!
Well done post.
I have a feeing of Deja Vu…It happens to me at October 2012 …however due to bad wether the Hellicopter droped us near Surkhe….
I will start the EBC 3 passes on OCT 1, 2016…This time if Lukla is closed for landing I will hire an HelLicopter with no delay…..
Thanks for your post …including the wifi availability
Ohh by now you have started EBC trek, I’m sure you will love it. Hope you had a safe landing and enjoy the hike, let me know how it went!!