Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Flights of Fancy

On the road out of Lukla, walking North, the path drops steeply after passing under a Kani, veers to the right and then makes a sharp left-hand turn. At this point there is a memorial to the people who died in the fatal air accident at Lukla airport. This tragedy happened in October 2008, and this was the airport that we had just floated into.

Having heard some of the old-wives tales about this particular flight – “They have to cut the engines in order to swoop down to land”; and “when you take off the aircraft actually drops over the edge of the cliff before it picks up height” I had done an internet search to try and discover the truth about Lukla Airport. And I discovered that the truth about Lulka Airport is at least as lurid as the fictions and immediately regretted having made that discovery. I resolved to keep this awful information to myself and not let on to my travelling companions.
. . . . .the runway is a mere 460m long and it has a 15 degree
Needless to say my companions had also done the same search. Collectively I think we had discovered that the runway is a mere 460m long and it has a 15° degree slope. There is only one way into this airport, and that is uphill; and there is only one way out, and that is downhill. Furthermore - to quote from Wikipedia – “Due to the terrain, there is no prospect of a successful go-around on short final.” And there you have it, in layman’s terms if the pilot is in anyway wrong in his or her perception as to where the runway is, how long it is, how fast he or she is going, and how high he or she is, and any number of other variables; and he (or she) gets it wrong; then you, the passenger, are - to put it bluntly - stuffed.

Flights between Kathmandu and Lukla are generally taken in Twin Otters a deHaviland aircraft with a capacity of 21 passengers and crew that is designed for short take off and landing (STOL) situations. These aircraft are the work horses of the region. They are functional and have no frills.

We crammed aboard, grabbing the port side seats so that we could see the mountains on the outward journey. On our plane these seats had the wonderful attribute of being both “window” and “aisle” – luxury! Stuffing our back-packs either under the seat or clenched between our knees we waited with bored affectation for the safety briefing – which consisted of strict instructions to those unlucky enough to be sitting next to the emergency exit as to what lever not to hit during the flight. The penalty for tripping the wrong lever is instant ejection from the aircraft – closely followed by most of your fellow passengers.

Aside from the lady who was throwing rice over her shoulder as an offering to whichever Hindu deity deals with flying, the passenger complement comprised nervous trekkers, one cheerful chap and one morose chap from the Nepal Civil Aviation Authority, a Buddhist Monk and a Flight Attendant. I know that the Flight Attendant is obligatory and have a sneaking suspicion that the Monk is also on the airline’s payroll – the one to succour to the temporal needs, and the other to the spiritual ones in event of any small directional errors. Oh, and of course the two pilots.
There is no door between the cabin and the flight deck
I knew there were two pilots because there is no door between the cabin and the flight deck. Must be hell for the nervous pilot having 19 potential back-seat fliers behind you all giving conflicting advice –
“left had down a bit”,
“non, le main a droite devant”,
“Nein, nein, dumpkopf keep zee hand steady but mind zee mountain, nach links wenden” and so forth and so on.
At Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport as we taxied between various mini-buses, trucks and re-fuelling bowsers, weaving between obstacles to find a bit of clear run-way for a sporting chance of a clear run at a take-off, the Flight Attendant was backing down the aisle almost bent double (head room is a bit of an issue in these aircraft) dispensing boiled sweets and cotton wool. And it is here that you can distinguish between the seasoned traveller and the mere amateur.

Astonishingly some of the passengers took dainty bits of cotton wool and screwed them into their ears and unwrapped the boiled sweets and sucked them! Completely missing the point that the airline was making a valiant effort to alleviate the undoubted anxieties of this flight. Fortunately there was a sufficiently large wad of cotton wool for me to tear off a sizable chunk, and I also snaffled a generous handful of boiled sweets.

Take-off was a gentle affair and we rose steadily through the infected fug of Kathmandu to emerge into a wonderland of distant snow capped, cloud shrouded mountains, and the deepest and steepest valleys in the world just below our feet.
 . . a wonderland of distant snow clad mountains 
30 minutes or so into the flight the cheerful chap from Nepal Civil Aviation who had befriended us (and who we kept bumping into over the next three days) declared with barely disguised excitement that Lukla airstrip was in view; and so it was, small and steep and awfully short, especially when seen through the Plexiglas window of the flight deck. How the hell is this admittedly small aircraft going to get down to, let alone touch-done, let alone stop on this sidewalk of a runway was beyond me.

Bracing myself I screwed a boiled sweet into each ear and stuffed the large wodge of cotton wool in my mouth. I aimed my camera down the aisle through the cockpit window and closed my eyes. At least I could not be heard whimpering and would not hear the heavy breathing of my fellow passengers, but would get some great shots of our final, oh so final, descent. Behind me I was aware of the Flight Attendant and the Buddhist Monk. The former was gazing out of the window with an air of studied boredom and the latter was serenely engrossed in the soccer pages of the Himalayan Times. The only discordant action was the lady flinging rice all over the place – which seemed to concern no one.

As we landed in a flurry of applause and rice I realized that next time it might be better if I unwrapped the boiled sweets, and even gave them a cursory suck before screwing them into my ears. That way they might stick in place a little longer.

There are no clear photographs of the descent or final landing, although for some extraordinary reason there are some blurred shots of feet (a later all too common subject) and the backs of nameless heads. I do however have clear photographs of the astonishing mountains and vertiginous cliffs that guard the gateway to this part of the Himalayas and Sagarmatha National Park.
Yaks and Trekkers sharing the main street from the airport

There are also clear memories of the frenetic ground-side activity at Lukla Airport; baggage handlers flinging various sacks, packages and containers onto hand trolleys. Porters matching bewildered clients with their bags. The cacophony of shouting ground staff, roaring aircraft engines and shrill police whistles hastening civilians off the apron so that the planes can re-load and takeoff, all spiced with the sickly smell of half burnt av-gas. Outside the Yaks wait with worldly patience to be loaded with whatever goods they are going to lumber up the Khumbu Yalley over the next 5 or so days.

Twelve days later on the road into Lukla, walking South, just as the path climbs steeply up to the Kani  there is a memorial to the eighteen people who died in the fatal air accident at Lukla airport in October 2008, and it’s a reminder of just one more hurdle to be crossed to leave this magical land.
On the road out of Lukla, walking North, the path drops
steeply after passing under a Kani . . . 

1 comment:

  1. I saw a video recently of planes taking off and landing at Lukla. It was enough for me. I can appreciate your disarming humor even more knowing what you must have been going through. Great read!


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