Early Morning Coffee – the perfect treat before flying into the most dangerous airport in the world: Lukla Airport
As I walked out of the alley from my temporary home with half of everything I owned strapped to my back, I breathed in the crisp Kathmandu, air which somehow felt cool yet filled with a quiet energy. My mind felt oddly peaceful as I turned left past the familiarly dusty brown buildings onto a narrow street lined with ground floor shops and unique views. The busy city was still calm and quiet as shop owners rolled up the gates to open their storefronts and purchased meat and vegetables from vendors out of milk crates strapped on the backs of motorcycles. I awoke eager and recharged at 5:30 AM and as much as I knew I should have taken all the rest I could get, it seem worthwhile to sacrifice an hour of sleep for a walk through an exotic, third world civilization before enjoying the real cup of coffee and breakfast that would likely be my last, for at least a couple weeks.
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My itinerary had me flying from the dilapidated domestic airport of Kathmandu to Lukla airport, notorious for being the most dangerous airport in the world. So actually, maybe I didn’t, need the coffee…a potential death flight should be enough to get my blood flowing for the day (no pun intended). In any case, bacon and eggs would be a fabulous last meal so I headed straight for the Nepali hipster café laden portion of Thamel to hunt out a fatty western styled breakfast before the flight.
Eco café, situated right around the corner from my comfy little Electric Pagoda café hit the spot. Bacon and eggs were on the top of the menu (even though I doubt any of the locals working at the restaurant even liked bacon) and the smell of freshly ground coffee caught my nose from the street. Jackpot. One tip for traveling abroad, if you ever want good food reminiscent of western cuisine and things you’ll find at home, look for the local versions of hipsters…and follow them to work. They always throw down well in the kitchen and their coffee game is usually top notch. And they always seem to work at restaurants or coffee shops.
As I sat there in a leather clad chair that would be more at home in a Seattle Starbucks than Kathmandu, I looked around and realized how many people weren’t in Nepal for the EBC Trek, and some weren’t even in Nepal trekking. The Americans across from me were discussing the business opportunity of opening a coffee shop that rents mountain bikes on the other side of town…that was their sole purpose for being in the country.
The dreadlocks sporting hippies to my left were just “in” Kathmandu… not really doing much of anything, just existing for cheap and scoring weed. And the mid-thirties couple behind me (British teachers on sabbatical) merely plopped in town for a couple days on their way to India. It appeared that I was the only idiot planning to walk 30+ miles and risking altitude sickness just to stare at a mountain. I love being unique! Besides, I guess this meant I would have the trail all to myself. And with that selfish though, bacon, eggs, and freshly ground and brewed coffee showed up. I savored every bite and drop. From now until the next time I saw Kathmandu I’d be surviving off of lentils, rice, and Snickers bars. A life of luxury.
I walked out of the coffee shop and wandered with my backpack, taking in the quiet city for a while before finally hailing a taxi the size of golf cart.
“To the airport”
“Heading to Base Camp?”
“Yessir, any advice?” I asked as I stepped into the tiny taxi.
“Don’t do anything stupid. And walk slow,” the cab driver replied as he sped off like Mario Andretti.
As the story will show, I failed supremely in following both of these simple pieces of advice.
Kathmandu Domestic Airport: Not disorganized…just apathetic
I hopped out at the airport, saddled up with everything deemed suitable for toting on the EBC trek, all of which fit into the 40-liter REI daypack that I had fallen in love with over the past 4 months of my trip through Southeast Asia. I walked into the airport, which resembled more of a gypsy camp than a commercial air operation, and expected for things to be as hectic as the traffic in Kathmandu the day before. Oddly, I was disappointed. It was calm, smooth, and orderly…but no one seemed to care about anything. I walked up to Yeti airlines with my ticket hoping to carry on all of my luggage.
“You’ll need to check your trekking poles,” the attendant said. I guess they thought I had some Night King level skills with the javelin. Not wanting to break any rules I tried to hand over my pocket knife as well. “No, no you can keep that, we just need the trekking poles.” To this day I’m still confused but I have to admit that it did feel oddly good to carry a knife on a plane. Don’t judge me.
I walked into the waiting area, one room and 15 feet over from the check-in area, grabbed a seat, and waited it out. The airport felt interestingly nice. Not hurried. Not worried. Not stressed. It just felt like no one cared. I’ve got to be honest…not caring felt good. A quick 30 minutes later, my flight on Yeti Airlines was being announced for boarding. We wandered out of the waiting area onto the tarmac where a tiny mini-bus packed in about 10 passengers and zipped us (crazy taxi style) over to what looked like an oversized soap box car with wooden planks for wings and lawnmower engines strapped to each side. This would be my ride from Kathmandu to Lukla Airport. Damn. No wonder the flight was so dangerous.
All aircraft used at Lukla airport air required to be specialized “short takeoff and landing” aircraft because the 527 meter runway presents a few unique difficulties
At that point my biggest treat for this trip kicked in: the people. Hikers and trekkers are interesting. Despite the fact that they look different, come from different places, and speak different languages, they often have the same standards for courtesy and, especially in this case, think alike.
“Hoooooooly shit! We’re flying in this? I think there’s more space in my bathroom at home! And you can see out of the front window!” yelled an older Aussie gent that was as excited as I was about how interesting this situation was becoming. All of the Aussies immediately started taking selfies, pics of the cabin and cockpit and sending them back to family at home with messages like “so, just in case, this is the plane I died in…”. I love that dark Aussie sense of humor
It was very interesting that there was no actual door between the cabin and the cockpit…just a curtain, which meant we would have the pilots’ view of the entire flight. An awesome bonus and a rush, considering the danger ahead.
What makes Lukla Airport so dangerous?
This is the perfect time to discuss the logical question: Why is Lukla Airport so dangerous. I’m glad you asked 😊
This is a simple question, with a not so simple, but still interesting, answer. But in brief, the Lukla Airport runway is extremely short and the terrain setup makes crashing a likely possibility if the pilot overshoots, undershoots, or just kind of does anything wrong and needs to get out of the situation quickly. Now, the long explanation….
Length of Lukla Airport runway is 527 meters, or 15 seconds in a Corvette
The Lukla Airport runway is exactly 527 meters long, so just longer than a quarter of a mile. That is extremely short but I’ll put this into perspective. I can run 400 meters in just about 60 seconds, so let’s say that I could run the length of the runway in 75 seconds. A Chevy Corvette can drive that in about 15 seconds. Now think about the last plane you flew on…how long did that thing to cruise down the runway and reach the necessary speed before it lifted off? Did it feel like it was longer than 15 seconds? Did it feel longer than 527 meters? Exactly.
Now keep in mind, that this 527 meters and 15 seconds is the ENTIRE runway, and most plans don’t start at the tip of one end of the runway and takeoff at the other tip, do they? So, if the pilot goes another foot before taking off, that plane is landing at the bottom of the cliff just past the runway (upside down) instead of landing in Kathmandu. This leads to the second reason Lukla airport is notoriously dangerous, the terrain that its cradled in.
Lukla Airport runway ends at a cliff on one side…
This extremely short runway, technically referred to as a “Short Takeoff and Landing Airport” or a STOLport for short, is carved into a hillside…but not very far into the hillside. In the direction of takeoff, the runway ends at a drop off down a “steeper than preferable” mountainside, also known as a cliff to normal people. Additionally, on both sides of the runway are either drop-offs or buildings, so if the pilot is rolling down the runway for takeoff and decides flying that day, for whatever reason, is a bad idea he’s SOL in terms of options…he’s either continuing forward and up, or forward and down, but either way that flying milk crate is going forward.
Now with all of this pessimism, landings must be a lot safer right? Ummm…(in my best Borat impression) not so much. Seven out of the ten accidents on record occurred on landing, and all of the fatalities at Lukla have occurred on landing. So, why is landing so dangerous?
…and a brick wall on the other
Remember how I said that the Lukla runway is carved into a mountainside, but not very far into the mountainside? This is why landing is even more dangerous. In the direction of landing, the runway endsat a wall dug into the hillside and loaded with a pile of stones. If the pilot, for whatever reason, can’t slow down and stays on the ground, he cruises into a hillside with rocks stacked in front of it. If he decides to pull up, he crashes into a hillside with houses stacked on it… “a touch and go” is nearly impossible here.
To make this poor pilot’s options worse, remember the other end of the runway with the cliff? If the pilot descends too quickly, the plane smacks into the hillside and tumbles down the mountain.
So, what have we learned? Landing in Lukla requires touching down at the perfect spot on the runway (not too early, not too late) at the perfect speed. Outside of that, there are no other options for landing (and surviving) at Lukla Airport
So sketchy that Nepal requires pilots to have special training
This is a great fear stoking story, but is the Lukla Airport that precarious? I’ll take a note from the Nepal Civil Aviation Authority. They’ve set special regulations regarding Lukla. Any pilot hired to fly into Lukla Airport must have flown 100 missions on STOLports and have at least 1 year of experience taking off and landing on STOLport runways and then must fly 10 missions into and out of Lukla Airport. Only then can they be reviewed for approval to fly into Lukla…so even after all of that experience, they could be refused permission to fly.
I’ve been all over Asia. People don’t wear helmets on motorcycles. They eat and drink things that would turn me into a Ninja Turtle. Policemen don’t enforce any traffic laws. The government enforces nothing related to safety. It’s like some natural Darwinian experiment happening on an entire subcontinent. But not at Lukla Airport. In all of Asia this is the one time I’ve seen a regulation focused on safety enforced, and that definitely means something. Lukla Airport is sketchy AF!!
On to Lukla Airport, the “Most Dangerous Airport in the World”
As the tiny plane’s engines began to whir faster, the flight attendant passed around ear plugs to dampen the sound. It was pretty clear how tiny and fragile our plane was as the small engines’ noise from outside drowned out any conversation in the cabin.
The pilots expertly maneuvered our flying go-kart to the runway like a kid in a bumper car, hit full power, laughed like children, and sent us speeding off towards the Himalayas.
The landscapes gave way from urban sprawl to slight greenery before we rose above the clouds. As we crossed over the invisible boundary surrounding Kathmandu and shot upward toward the sun hidden behind the clouds, a stream of Himalayan peaks came into distant view, and they were beyond impressive.
While we rose above the clouds, permafrost capped snowy peaks stuck above the fluffy white blanket of clouds to greet us. The cabin full of passengers all had the same reactions…first snapping pictures and pointing to get each other’s attention, then giving up realizing that sprawling beauty such as this can never really be captured fully on any film or smart phone. You just have to be there to experience it fully. This would be a recurring theme throughout the entire EBC trek.
As we neared Lukla town, the energy and buzz in the tiny cabin grew. People began to chatter about the last “Lukla Airport Crash” headline that they’d read in their research. Funny enough, no one was chattering about the last “Lukla Airport Landing” that they’d read about. Come on peeps, you’re supposed to optimists! Anyways…
The Experience of a Lukla Airport landing
As we dropped in altitude below the clouds and descended toward the landing strip I realized that everything I had heard about this flight was actually…very true. Picture two long mountain crests running parallel to form a steep valley between them but running nearly parallel for miles as they gradually move toward each other until they almost touch, pinching the airplane between them, but they don’t touch. Instead, these two ridgelines end by running into another steep mountain. On this steep mountain, where the equally steep valley ends, imagine someone carved a flat area, a few hundred meters (527 meters to be exact) and paved it…to land planes on. THIS is exactly what Lukla airport is. So, if the pilot undershoots, he flies right into a mountain and the plane tumbles thousands of feet down the mountain. If the pilot overshoots, there isn’t enough runway to stop, so the plan smacks into the mountainside of Lukla town…but at least there isn’t that whole “falling thousands of feet” thing in that case, right?
As for me, I didn’t research any of this before so I was realizing all of this on the fly. I DEFINITELY didn’t need my coffee to wake up this morning.
The flight attendants and pilots prepped us for landing, which included opening the curtains so that we could see straight through the cockpit windows toward the mountain that was flying right toward us (or vice versa). To date, that view is one of the most amazing views I remember from my life thus far.
As the steep valley walls below moved closer to the plane I realized how close we were getting when I could make out individual branches on the trees…. that were beside the plane, not beneath it.
This airplane was so tiny I could feel every tiny pocket of air as the plane shifted left and right while we descended quickly.
I rarely feel anxious or scared, but I was definitely feeling something. The mountain walls beside us were growing closer as they pinched toward the plane, half obscured by small patches of clouds
The mountain in front, and the runway carved into it, became clearer (and the “pucker factor” increased) as I felt the wheels beneath the plane grab traction and the entire plane lurch forward as the pilots hit the brakes hard to avoid hitting the wall just hundreds of feet in front of us. The plane shifted left and right as it tried hard to slow down, bouncing all of the cabin passengers around with it.
The best part about this experience? I, and half of the passengers (mostly Aussies) were laughing out loud about how sketchy this experience was and gave a full applause to the pilots once we had slowed down enough to come to our senses. To one up it, the pilots just laughed and looked back giving us a thumbs up with a full Tom Cruise Top Gun demeanor.
I have to give those pilots credit, landing in those conditions in such an aircraft is quite impressive. I now understand why flights get delayed so often coming out of Kathmandu.
I stood on the tarmac for a few minutes admiring the plane, and the tiny airstrip before retrieving my trekking poles to start the trek.
On arrival, passengers de-plane, enter the airport to retrieve their things and exit shortly after. Upon exit, we shuffled left toward Lukla town and its main street which rolls into the EBC hike. Lucky for me, that path runs right behind the runway and I was able to see my pilots on takeoff. It was impressive, and incredible sight to see in person. I highly recommend it.
Now that I had made it safely from Kathmandu to Lukla, it was time to get things started. I would haul ass for Phakding and spend the night there. Or so I thought…
Tips for Kathmandu portion of the Kathmandu to Everest journey
- Hold on tight
- Stay to watch a landing or takeoff before leaving Lukla Airport to start your trek
OTHER GREAT LINKS ABOUT THE EVEREST BASE CAMP TREK
- How much does it cost to trek to Everest Base Camp?
- Overview of the Everest Base Camp Trek
- The Everest Base Camp Trek Packing List