Nepal: A Himalayan flight full of fear

By Jennifer Ennion

Brace yourself when you descend on Nepal's Lukla Airstrip. Photo / Thinkstock
Brace yourself when you descend on Nepal's Lukla Airstrip. Photo / Thinkstock

The pilot drops his headset. It breaks.

The co-pilot leans out of the plane. With a tissue he wipes the condensation fogging the windscreen. He looks like a maverick in chrome aviators and a leather jacket.

The 16 passengers in this Tara Air plane swap worried glances. Some of them are clenching teeth, others fidgeting uneasily.

As we wait anxiously for take-off on the tarmac at Kathmandu Airport, we try and put the oft-told horror stories of plane crashes in fiesty Himalayan weather out of our minds.

Our flight is scheduled to leave Nepal's capital city for Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla - reputed to be one of the most dangerous airports in the world.

With as much fear as excitement on board, the plane takes off effortlessly into the thick and brown air above Kathmandu.

The sky ahead, however, is bright blue - a relief for the nervous flyers among us.

With most of my fellow passengers being Australian, we're all too familiar with the 2008 deaths of a Victorian couple holidaying in Nepal.

Andrew Frick McLeod and girlfriend Charlene Zamudio were on a hiking holiday when the plane they were on crashed at Lukla airport.

They were among 18 people that died, the only survivor being the pilot.

News reports state that the Yeti Airlines plane clipped a security fence upon landing.

More recently, in September 2012, another plane bound for Lukla crashed shortly after take-off in Kathmandu. All 19 people on board died.

The list goes on.

For travellers itching to see what they're in for before leaving home, there are even YouTube videos of Lukla flights (just don't show your parents).

What gives the airport its infamous status is its position among the world's tallest mountain range.

Lukla is at 2800m altitude and is the starting point for many treks into the region.

During the 45-minute flight from Kathmandu you pass mountain peaks that feel extremely close. Below, the valley is consumed by green terraces, and dotting the landscape are the tiny villages of Sherpas and porters.

When the weather is clear, the views are dramatic and help pump the adrenalin ahead of a Himalayan hike.

When the weather is shabby, though, the last place you'll want to be is in a roaring twin otter headed for a runway that slams into a mountain face.

That's right. When you reach Lukla airport, pray for an incredibly quick stop on the incredibly short runway.

Upon touchdown, expect your fellow passengers to erupt in cheers of joy and applause for your pilots.

But the ordeal isn't over quite yet. Once feet are back on solid ground you won't be shown into an air-conditioned terminal to await your luggage.

Instead, a gruff airline official will order you out of the way and into what looks like a holding pen for refugees.

It's not. It's actually where new arrivals greet porters who are waiting patiently behind wire fences for their next job. (They carry the bags of hikers on group tours.)

As the fine details of porter loads get sorted out, our group buzzes with excitement about surviving the flight and embarking on our next challenge - Everest Base Camp.

"I loved every minute of it because it created a sense of adventure," says Australian traveller Susan Cleveland after landing.

"I feel really excited."

The Nepalese government has reportedly upped safety measures for Lukla flights, leading to cancellations if the weather is poor.

Because of this, tour guide Rajat Roy, who has been trekking for 13 years, assures me the airport really doesn't deserve it's bad rep.

Sometimes pilots cannot see the airstrip due to bad weather, he says, but there's only one accident per year on average.

"So far so good!" he adds. "The pilots are very experienced out here."

We take in our surrounds from the comfort of a lodge. Some of us watch departing planes through wraparound windows, as we sip cups of black tea. Others snap photos from the lodge balcony.

It's noisy outside, and not just from the aircraft engines. We're surrounded by construction workers, hammering at slabs of concrete to make gravel by hand.

Thirteen days later, on a high after hiking to Base Camp, Lukla is where we say goodbye to our Sherpas and porters, and prepare for the flight back to Kathmandu.

A few worried faces return and it doesn't help that black fumes are pouring across the tarmac from an unknown source. But again we squeeze into a Tara Air plane.

It rolls onto the runway and points its nose downwards to the valley.

"Ready for the leap of faith?" asks one of my fellow travellers.

And then with the speed and thrill of a rollercoaster ride, we dash across the tarmac and launch into the air. Seats vibrate.

It's an emotional farewell to Lukla and Nepal's Himalayas.

And yet another chapter in our adventure of a lifetime.

- AAP

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