28Nov2012

Flying into Lukla: Feel the Fear

Flying into Lukla - Twin Otter wing over Himalayas.

I’m not normally a nervous flier.

But when it comes to flying into Lukla from Kathmandu, nerves are really the only appropriate response.

I’d barely slept the night before, waking on the hour every hour with wild anxieties about missing our flight, I suspect a displacement for subliminal anxieties about a) said plane falling out of the sky (this happens about once every eighteen months, though with the last one only eight weeks ago, one could argue that probability is on our side) and b) my fitness and preparation for Everest Base Camp.

As third world airports go, the domestic end of Kathmandu airport is, well, pretty darn old school. Random heaps of baggage and non-uniformed porters stand in for a luggage carousel, and computerisation has yet to strike, although there is one departure board, which reliably shows everything as departing on time, and a second with a weird Excel spreadsheet affair.

The stray dogs outside add a little of what one could term “local colour”, although at 6am I’m not in the mood for any local colour at all.

Or, as Zac puts it. “I hate this airport. The only thing I can’t work out is whether it stinks of human piss or animal piss.”

“I think it’s human,” I say, helpfully. “I don’t think they let the stray dogs in here.”

Flights to Lukla, the jumping off point for most treks around Everest, unless you want to walk an extra six days in from the bus stop in Jiri, are routinely delayed. Lukla is a small air strip, less than 500 metres long, balanced precipitously on the side of a Himalayan valley, and unless the weather is crystal clear for visual navigation at either end of the 25 minute flight, the planes don’t leave.

This morning, it appears nothing’s leaving Kathmandu airport. “A problem with a machine,” apparently.

Time passes. Zac snoozes. More time passes.

Three flights to Pokhara are called, all at the same time. Weird, I think.

Then they call the first three flights to Lukla, all at the same time.

Then they cancel all the flights to Mountain.

And then they call our flight to Lukla! Yay! All fourteen passengers pile rather nervously onto a bus.

Zac outside our plane at Kathmandu Airport.<

A Twin Otter is, it would be fair to say, a very small plane. It was first manufactured in 1965, and I'd wager our chariot dates to approximately then.

We giggle, nervously, on approach to the plane. And then we sit.

We sit some more.

A man comes over and sits on the wheel of the plane.

Three girls from the airline come over and stand by the plane.

A man comes over with a clipboard and the girl makes a call on her mobile.

A couple more arrivals bring the operational complement of our grounded plane to eight, not counting the pilots, who are, we assume, on board.

The man with the clipboard takes a call on his mobile. The contents of the clipboard are broadly shared.

We're good to board!

The problem, my neighbour tells me, is with air traffic control.

Holy shit! I think. Please god tell me they're not flying planes out of here on visual, using a clipboard and some mobile phones.

We are held back from the rather rickety-looking steps-cum-door that lead up to the plane.

"That's a good sign," says Zac, sardonically. "The door won't take the weight of more than one person at a time."

I try not to examine the rubber strap that's supporting the door.

Travel tip: Avoid watching either Alive or Final Destination before flying into Lukla.

I look up at the ceiling. And I can’t help but notice that the inside panelling, just like in Final Destination, is missing some rivets. I touch my reading light. The bulb falls out.

Oh Jesus. They MUST pay better attention to the critical flying parts than the decorative structure, mustn’t they?

I’ve flown with goats in the aisle in Mauritania, but I was 19 then, and invulnerable. I’ve flown on small planes in Indonesia, the Chinese brand that routinely falls out of the sky, and from small airfields in Borneo and beyond. But this is by far the most knackered plane I’ve had the privilege to board.

We have a stewardess! She hands round sweets.

We taxi right up to arse of another plane. It takes off. Our turn next, it seems.

At takeoff, I’m so relieved to be actually in the air and in one piece that I forget to be scared. 25 minutes, I think. That’s all the time it needs to hold together.

I look down. Twin Otters have non-retractable wheels. All the same, it looks like a mistake. I’m right on the wing, which looks flimsy as hell.

Flying into Lukla - Twin Otter wing over Himalayas.

And then the Himalayas appear over to our left. And it’s beautiful.

Honestly, truly beautiful. (Top tip: flying into Lukla? Sit on the left. At the back if you’re nervous. At the front to catch the action.)

Which is good, because with a plane that size you really feel every variation in course.

The sort of routine banking turn that won’t even register on a 747 feels like the entire bloody thing’s going to tip over and enter a death spin.

Obviously, there’s some, umm, interesting thermals as we fly between the Himalayas and over the green valleys of their foothills. On the first one, we drop about 20 feet.

I and the girls in front, emit a muted, terrified squawk.

Fifteen minutes to go, I figure. Only fifteen minutes more.

At peak season, there’s tens of flights a day going into and out of Lukla, and they hardly ever lose one…

There doesn’t seem to be a door to the cockpit, so we can see everything the pilots are seeing.

Like bloody big mountains, a lot closer than they should be.

WAH!

View from the cockpit flying into Lukla.

It is at this point that both I and, I learn later, the boy, remember the sequence in Alive where the plane ploughs into the top of the mountain, the back peels away, and then more and more rows of seats detach from the back of the plane and the passengers drop screaming to their deaths.

We are, needless to mention, at the back of the plane.

Holy shit! All of a sudden there are houses visible through the windscreen. Houses at about our level.

We must be landing.

The wheels touch down. The co-pilot slams the engine into reverse — the runway’s angled upwards, but all the same, even in a small plane, you need to use reverse to stop you slamming into the wall or the terminal building.

The sign rushes up at us. We slow. And stop, about 30 metres short of the terminal building. Which, given the runway is less than 500m long, is quite a decent margin of error.

Welcome to Tenzing-Hillary Airport!

A whole-hearted round of applause for our phenomenally skilled pilots, and we step, rather shakily, onto the tarmac, towards Nir, our porter-guide, who is holding a sign with a loose approximation of my name. He has a warm, open face, and I like him immediately.

Which is good since, as Zac points out, we’re spending the next three weeks with him.

I look back down the runway towards the drop to the valley floor.

Hey, I think. After flying into Lukla, Everest Base Camp’s going to be easy, right?

It is only later that I realise that, throughout our journey, I have not heard either the pilot or the copilot utter a single word to air traffic control.

12 Comments

  1. Mary says:

    Holy hell, well that one s off my bucket list! I am a pretty nerv ous flier so this sounds just horrible! Maybe with massive amounts of drugs!

    • Theodora says:

      Mm… Just, with the flying delays at the airport, you’d probably be semi-conscious before you got on. It is possible to walk in from Jiri, though. It takes six days….

  2. Joe says:

    Great story. Not sure I would have gotten on that plane.

  3. [...] blog entry is one long superlative string of terrifying and funny details of what it’s like to fly from [...]

  4. Cath Hartmann says:

    Been following your blog for a while and really enjoy it. But after reading this post last night I had plane nightmares. Not cool!

  5. Yvette says:

    Yeah, I went to Everest on the Tibet side primarily because I didn’t think I could handle the airport in Lulka. And this comes from a girl who routinely watches “Air Crash Investigation” before flying.

    Doing airport takeoffs and landings like that (ie just visual and with mobile phones) is fairly common in mountainouse parts of the US by the way, as in you just give everyone a number and they take off/ land in that order, because not like radar works. I did that in Jackson Hole, WY for example, though I’m sure there were many more security things in place otherwise too!

    Enjoy the trekking. :)

    • Theodora says:

      How interesting! I’d never noticed it before, probably because I’d never sat in a plane where the doors to the cockpit were open, so I could hear, or rather not hear, the dialogue with the control tower.

  6. I think I’d have crumpled on the runway in nervous anticipation and fear before the plane had even taken off. This sounds terrifying.

    • Theodora says:

      Between the flight and the retreating (retreated?) glaciers we’ve just seen, Tom, I think there is an extremely strong case for doing the right thing and walking in from Jiri.

  7. astridreza says:

    whoa! those mountain of the cockpit view is so near. it must be your longest 25 minutes moment.

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