I’ve been in helicopters before, both times in the north west of Western Australia. The first time was over the Bungle Bungles in the Pilbara and on a separate occasion over the Willie Creek pearl farm outside Broome. What spectacular views of such an awe inspiring landscape.
There are unlikely to be any flights though in my travel future that will surpass the helicopter flight between Kathmandu and Lukla.
We weren’t expecting it, we were supposed to be catching a Twin Otter aircraft to take us up 2,860 metres into the Himalayan mountain range to land on a runway only 460 metres long and steeply angled at 12%. Now we’d all done our research, because after all isn’t that what Google’s for? And what had we learnt you may ask. Well, that steeply angled, short runway, actually the only runway, at one of the world’s most dangerous airports is sandwiched between a mountain and a deep river valley. The pilots, after navigating around the mountains and banking and descending through layers of cloud and mist have to throw their propellers into hard reverse when they land in order to bring the tiny plane to a stop before getting too close to the fast approaching mountainside. They have very wisely constructed a stone wall that proclaims ‘Welcome to Lukla’ between the end of the runway and the mountain, just in case a bit of a buffer is needed I guess.
Let’s not dwell on the reason for the burns on part of that wall.
To get out of there it’s then necessary to gun the engines and race back down the steep gradient hoping like hell to take off before reaching the 700 metre drop into the river valley at the end of the runway.
So, that was the plan. A scheduled flight through the mountains in a tiny plane and a memorable landing at this airport in the sky, the highest airport with scheduled flights in the world.
But so often when you’re travelling things don’t go as planned and when you’re dealing with mountain weather very close to the onset of the monsoon season well, you have to be flexible.
We were at Kathmandu airport by six, actually we were there even before they opened the doors, waiting in a queue that you could just tell was going to be rushing those doors as soon as they opened. We’d successfully negotiated the stampede, the rigmarole that was weigh in and the farcical security measures that saw men and women segregated, patted down and then allowed through into the departure lounge with an assortment of paraphernalia still in their pockets and we’d claimed a group of seats in which to wait it out.
But waiting it out at Kathmandu airport was tedious, by half past nine we were definitely a restless mob and weather reports indicated that our chances of flying today were slim. Kathmandu was fine, Lukla not so, clouds and mist were preventing aircraft taking off or landing there.
None of us really wanted to lose a day and have to make it up somewhere along the trek, and there was no guarantee that the weather would be any better tomorrow.
To cut a long story short, there was no way any plane was going to get there today and the only option was to pay for helicopters to take us in. In a way it was a disappointment not to be landing on that runway but the flight through the mountains in the helicopter certainly made up for it.
At the end of the trek, after another weather induced delay of nearly two days, we did get to experience that airport and go hurtling down the runway to watch it disappear beneath us as we took off over the valley.
An amazing experience, flying in and out.