Tenzing Hillary Airport, famously called Lukla airport, is a small airport with an airstrip of 460m. It lies in Khumbu, Sagarmatha zone, eastern Nepal. It was named thus in 2008 in the honor of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay who were the first to summit Mount Everest and also had hands in its construction.
In 2010, a program titled Most Extreme Airports rated this airport as ‘most dangerous’. It earned this title because of the short runway and its location at the height of 2,845m. The strip has a wall and a hairpin turn at one end and a steep drop into the valley at the other. The inclination is 12%. Because of this, people joke that even without a proper takeoff the aircraft has plenty of time to rise; that is while falling into the valley.
The runway is accessible only to helicopters and small, fixed wing, short takeoff and landing aircrafts like Twin Otter, Dornier and Pilatus. These small crafts can carry only 16 to 18 people at a time. Due to this, the traffic is high.
Despite its reputation, it is one of the busiest airports in Nepal. It is the gateway to Everest Base Camp Trekking. Every treks to Everest Region begin here. Therefore, dozens of people seeking adventure lands on Lukla every day during peak seasons. The other way is a long drive to Jiri and a 4-5 days hike to Lukla. Tourists prefer this short 30min flight instead.
The flight to Lukla is exciting in more than one way. Its reputation aside, it is one of the most scenic flight. It offers spectacular up-close view of the peaks like Lhotse, Nuptse, AmaDablam and others along with the lush green valley below. Then the small patch of a runway appears making everyone nervous. The fear is justified due to its precarious position and there have been few incidents. Most of the time people escaped with minor or no injuries.
The major accident was that of 2008 when a DHC-6 Twin Otter crashed and caught fire killing all aboard. Then on 2010, a Dornier crashed at Shikharpur when returning to Kathmandu. All fifteen people died. These accidents were unfortunate but considering the traffic, Lukla airport is only as dangerous as driving through any road. Only the best of Nepal’s pilots fly to Lukla and much precaution is taken.
There is a control tower manned by two or three air traffic controllers who keep constant radio contact with Kathmandu airport and the planes. The navigation is by sight alone and clouds are obstructions. Thus, the controllers in Lukla decide whether planes should leave Kathmandu. But days can turn cloudy so fast that the aircraft cleared to leave Kathmandu has to turn back even though the distance is only 30 minutes. This is also why the flights keep getting canceled. Once, about 3500 people were stranded in Lukla waiting for their flight.
Everyday many safe landing takes place. Yet, because of the risks, it has maintained its dubious title as the most extreme. Even now, after a 30min flight of excitement and anxiety, when the aircraft finally makes a successfully land, the passengers tend to clap in relief and with other tourists snapping pictures, every landing is like a walk through the Red Carpet.