The Lukla Airport Experience

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

Tighten your seatbelt. Kick your carry-on bag under the chair ahead. We’re about to descend.

The airplane is swooping in turbulence, wind and shock waves sent down from the Himalayan Mountains above. The pilot is weaving through a tight valley, trees and a tall ridgeline perpendicular with the wing. The stewardess takes her seat. A murmur over the intercom, and I hear the wheels go down. The craft is ready to land.

Lukla Airport landing strip.jpg

Lukla’s downhill air strip ends at a drop to the valley below

Welcome to the Lukla Airport experience, a flight from Kathmandu to an airstrip on a valley side at about 9,000 feet in the sky. Most all visitors to Mount Everest and the Khumbu Region of Nepal take this flight. Prop planes labor skyward from an airport on the outskirts of Kathmandu. They climb above the city’s sprawl, through smog, and into the clouds.

The airport in Lukla — a strip of tarmac perched at a steep angle jutting uphill — is often cited as the most dangerous on the planet. This is a myth. While there have been crashes, the airport is as safe as many major airports around the world.

Lukla Airport photo 1.jpg

Flight check before takeoff

“For decades, the Lukla Airport has been the gateway to the Khumbu Region and Mount Everest,” said Wally Berg, founder of Berg Adventures International and organizer for Expedition Hanesbrands. Berg has flown in and out of Lukla more than 40 times without incident.

Lukla Airplane.jpg

Inside the cramped fuselage for a flight

All anecdotes on safety aside, the airport at 9,000 feet can be psychologically upsetting. The strip is essentially a thin line of tarmac set on a valley’s edge. Landings are bumpy and fast, the pilot braking hard to a stop as the plane drifts uphill toward a wall.

Lukla Airport photo 2.jpg

Seatback safety instructions

Takeoffs are even more dramatic: Thrust the motor, say a prayer, and point the plane down an airstrip that dead-ends at a drop into the valley below. The engines whir. The wheels leave the ground, and the pilot points the plane toward an oblivion ahead.

Lukla Airport photo.jpg

On the ground in Lukla

In 40 minutes or so, you’re back in Kathmandu. It is a bumpy plane ride from the mountains to the city. The wings dip. The plane circles to land, a long runway ahead. Wheels touch down, the propellers spin to a stop. Now breathe. You’re safe, at last, on flat ground.

—Stephen Regenold reported live from Nepal and Everest Base Camp for Expedition Hanesbrands’ http://climbwithus.com site and on Gear Junkie at our Everest Blog.

Commenting on post : The Lukla Airport Experience
Posted by Alex - 04/21/2010 08:30 AM

I remember flying into Lukla a few years ago. Flights out of Kathmandu were delayed because of fog/cloud cover in the mountains. When they gave us the go-ahead the pilot tore out of Tribuvhan as fast as he could. By the time we got to Lukla the clouds were closing in again. The pilot shot the plane through a hole in the clouds and that’s when I saw the tiny, steep landing strip. There was definitely a high pucker factor!

We ended up being one of only four flights that made it into Lukla that day. And the airstrip was closed for the next three days straight because of weather.

Posted by GJ mom - 04/21/2010 05:14 PM

So happy to have you safe and secure back in Minnesota! The Lukla airport experience took away my dream of going to the top of Mt.Everest. Darn!

Posted by Todd Jackson - 04/23/2010 10:10 AM

On my first arrival in Lukla by air we could see the wreckage of a plane that didn’t quite make a proper landing. Forgot about that until we took off weeks later and certainly was relieved once the plane was airborne heading back to Kathmandu.

Posted by pat smith - 04/23/2010 11:32 AM

I was more nervous landing in Aspen, especially after we stopped and the pilot said “Thank the lord!”

Todd, I remember landing next to the wreckage too!

Posted by Airport - 05/12/2010 06:18 AM

In 1998, shortly after arriving in Ktm, Ashik, my friend and Lawyer informed Marcia and I that we had to go on a short flight and walk. Still jetlagged, we followed without question. Shock and awe, describes the experience. Tourists, planning to hike the Everest Route land at Lukla.
Their trip has been well researched and they are physically fit-neither of which described us.
Sometimes one has to repeat an experience to fully comprehend the previous one.
2010-Lukla airport-9,000 feet.
Our Plane-Sita Air, delayed takeoff by 1 day (thank you), due to bad weather in Lukla. http://www.airports360.net

Posted by Bikalpa - 05/26/2010 10:12 AM

Neaplese pilot are the real world Pilot,,,,, I am gonna treasure them….

Posted by Tommy - 09/02/2010 05:55 AM

Lukla Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Nepal 2007. It is craziest and dangerous!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DqgZvb37NX0

Posted by Julie Lilienkamp - 10/10/2010 08:16 PM

Been there (2008). I agree, this is the most extreme airport I have ever landed and taken off in. Second worst, is Phaplu, Nepal (2 min. away, by air).

Posted by Denis - 03/27/2012 03:47 PM

it does look pretty bad for a “civil” airport. I know of a similar airport in Jamaica (private landing strip) tucked into the mountain close to Ewarton and i can tell you, even though i like flying (as a pilot) That was really scarry . Very similar situation: deep valley tiny airstrip in a slope …

Posted by jake - 10/17/2012 10:00 AM

I am a pilot and have landed a few times at lukla airport i can say that landing at lukla airport is unbeliveablie hard you can not see the runway untill you are about 7 miles out (that is critial for a pilot). When you are coming down you are like a passenger looking out the window trying to find it.

Posted by Nik - 08/24/2013 10:10 AM

I scrounged a lift to Lukla in 1973 in a plane that was taking up supplies for an Italian expedition to Everest. There was no sealed airstrip and the plane landed up the slope and swung around sideways onto the slope, so as not to start sliding backwards. I found it quite exciting but the pilot was blasé. There were no buildings but a few local men appeared to offer their services as bearers. The one we selected took us as far as Dingboche and found us accomodation mainly in farmhouses en route. I gather things have changed quite a bit since.

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