Flying The Himalayas

We would like to change the focus of this page to “Learning about aviation in Nepal” This might be more enlightening about the country culture, geography as well as the Himalayas. We would like to know what our readers think about this, leave a comment below and tell us what you think…

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Flying the Himalayas  

Lukla Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Nepal

One of the busy airports in the world! Landing and Take-off at Lukla are very interesting and exciting!!! 世界最危險機場第一位

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The Rugged Himalaya Roof of the world 

“Flying the Himalayas”

By, Ramesh Acharya*

I fly the Himalayas Mountains, there is many reasons it is called the “roof of the world”, but that describes it pretty well. The scenery can be the most beautiful in the world but it also can be the most intimidating place to work when you know you are at the mercy of the mountain and the elements.

The Federal Democratic republic of Nepal is my country and where I fly in for a domestic airline. Nepali as we call our country is located in South Asia and is landlocked between China and India. In May 2008 our country changed from a Monarchy to Democratic Republic. The capital city is Kathmandu.

The Mountainous northern part of Nepal where the Himalaya Mountain range has eight of the worlds ten tallest mountains on earth. Mount Everest being the tallest and most popular, where the people who climb it fly into the world’s most dangerous airport known as Lukla airport.

I fly regularly into Tenzing-Hillary Airport which is also known as Lukla airport which is one of the most dangerous airports in the world, but more on that later. I fly into a lot of other STOL (short take-off and landing) airports in Nepal which the Himalayas.

I am 25 a years old single Nepali commercial pilot. Call me Raesh Acharya, I am Hindu  and I fly for one of the domestic airlines here in Nepal. I fly a Canadian made aircraft Twin Otter DHC-6-300. This airplane carries 19 passengers and two pilots a pilot in command PIC and a co pilot and a flight attendant. The engines are Pratt & Whitney PT6A-27 Turboprop modified 680 hp Cruise speed: 150 knots 173 mph 278 km/h, Stall speed:58 knots VSO, gross weight, landing configuration, Range:920 nautical miles 1,050 mi ,690 km, Service ceiling: 25,000 ft 7,620 m, Rate of climb:1,600 ft/min 8.1 m/s.

You may wonder why I am telling you all this detail because you will find this information handy in your quick recall while reading the stories of flying the Himalayas.

Please understand English is not my first language so my grammar may be lacking in some cases and JR Hafer has helped me, but insists I write most myself.

I find my job as a pilot flying the Himalayas in Nepal quite fun, exciting and very dangerous. The climate here changes in few minutes, the terrain is very high and airports are very challenging to get in and out of due to the lack of modern electronic navigation equipment and guidance systems. It only takes one small mistake and you can snag a wing tip on a shelf or you may fly into a mountain.

We are always flying between mountains and through gaps of higher peaks due to higher reaching terrain and the AGL (above ground level) are altitudes are tremendous here. The climate changes in minutes, weather and terrain are our biggest problems here, and to add to that is the short and rough ill-equipped airports.

There are seventy five districts in Nepal some villages depend on airplane to fly in supplies and medicines because there are no roads. We fly people and supplies, medicines into all districts wherever they are needed, or want us to go. Many are very dangerous and very short and narrow airstrips with solid rock at one end.

Flying between the mountains which are covered by fog and clouds, and the winds are very gusty with up drafts, down drafts and cross winds too. Most of the time you’ve just got to fight it like a dragon all the time. By the time you are on approach it is a relief just to be almost there.

Some time it happens we have to penetrate the clouds in enroute and our gps terrain mode shows that we are too low. Can you imagine your imc condition with gps warning “Your too low PULL UP NOW” “your Too Low”, “PULL UP NOW”?

It’s all about your knowledge here. If you’re up to date in your knowledge of metrology, terrain, navigation and flying you will do fine otherwise if one mistake happens in one of these things goes wrong and you are not paying attention or you don’t know what to do, then your dead in the mountains, that is the only attitude you can have in this business. In the last 2 years I have lost 8 of my friends in 4 crashes.

I think for the time being I will not tell you who I work for because I do not think I will have the freedom to say what I want to say about flying the Himalayas and the most dangerous airports in the world if I have my boss looking over my shoulder so to speak. Or if I have to worry about what, I say and then have to fly my airplane if you know what I mean?

I live in a small village near Kathmandu, Nepal. And I work out of Tribhuvan International Airport (Nepali: त्रिभुवन विमानस्थल) (IATA: KTM, ICAO: VNKT) the international airport of Kathmandu, Nepal. It is the only international airport in Nepal. Currently, there is 30 international airlines that fly in and out of Nepal and connect to various other destinations in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The airport is about six kilometers from the city center, in the Kathmandu valley.

The airport was originally named Gauchar Airport and was the beginning of aviation in Nepal occurring when Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft landed there carrying the Indian Ambassador in 1949. The first charter flight took place in a Dakota on 20 February 1950 flying from Gaucher field to and from Calcutta, and became Himalayan Aviation.

In 1955 the airport was inaugurated by King Mahendra and renamed Tribhuvan Airport in memory of the king’s father. The airport was again renamed Tribhuvan International Airport in 1964. The original grass runway was re-laid in concrete in 1957 and extended from 3,750 feet (1,140 m) long, to 6,600 feet (2,000 m) long in 1967. The runway was again extended from 6,600 feet (2,000 m) to 10,000 feet (3,000 m) in 1975.

The first jet aircraft to land at Tribhuvan was a Lufthansa Boeing 707, which touched down on the 6,600 feet (2,000 m) runway in 1967. Royal Nepal Airlines commenced jet operations at the airport in 1972 with Boeing 727 aircraft.

Some of the airlines serving Nepal Domestic and International are: Agni Air, Air Arabia, Air China, Air India, ArkeFly, Bahrain Air, Biman Bangladesh Airlines, Buddha Air, China Eastern Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Dragonair, Druk Air, Etihad Airways, Flydubai, Guna Airlines, GMG Airlines, Gulf Air, IndiGo, Jet Airways, JetLite, Kingfisher Airlines, Korean Air, Nepal Airlines, Oman Air, Pakistan International Airlines, Qatar Airways, RAK Airways, SilkAir, Sita Air, Spicejet, Tara Air, Thai Airways, United Airways, Yeti Airlines.

Now I have told you a little about me and my country and sort of set the stage for the story line, I will start next time sharing some of my adventures and experiences about Flying the Himalayas. I can assure you that it will be exciting and fun to read as it is to sit in the cockpit and fly the plane with me. The fog rolling in and the clouds enveloping us and the approach marginal and knowing you have but one chance of making the landing, knowing there is no “do over, it is literally “do or die” and there waiting for you at the end of the 1500 ft runway is a solid wall of stone. What you going to do? Just hold on and pray, because you are past the point of no return………

(If you have questions leave them on the reply box below, I will try to answer when I can. I hope you enjoy these storys)Ramesh Acharya, Himalayan Pilot

Flying into Lukla

Those who are attempting to ascend to the top of Mount Everst, first fly into Lukla airport which is one of the world’s most danerous airports.

By, Ramesh Acharya *

Flying into the world’s most dangerous airport is never routine I think of flying into flying into the world’s most dangerous airport as if I am going on a Special mission every time. Each time we fly there it is different, and we never know how the flight will end up. Although, there are hazards and we must deal with many adverse natural conditions our company spends thousands of dollars making sure we are very proficient and safe pilots. We are the best at what we do, all pilots who fly into these hazardous airports are the best pilots for the job.  

Tenzing-Hillary Airport (IATA:LUA, ICAO: VNLK), Also known as Lukla Airport, because it is the small airport in the town of Lukla, on the side of a mountain in eastern Nepal. It has been called the most dangerous airport in the world by many. 

In 2008 airport was named in honor of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the first people to ever reach the summit of Mount Everest. Lukla is also the place where most people start their climb on Mount Everest. 

People come from all over the world to Kathmandu and catch our Flights to Lukla to start their climb up Mount Everest base camp. Airport elevation  2,860 m / 9,100 ft above sea level, Runway landing direction 06, takeoff 24 (460 m, 1,500 ft long x 20 m,  65ft wide) with upward landing gradient of 12%.

On takeoff at the end of runway 24 there is a 2,000 feet or 610 meter drop off at the southern end of the runway to the valley floor below. 

The airport apron has four stands and a helicopter landing paddock located about 150 meters from the control tower. Lukla airport does not have any navigational landing aids and the only air traffic services available are Aerodrome Flight Information Service. I’ll tell you more about Aerodrome Flight Information Service in a later story. 

When people come from Germany, USA, France, UK, Australia, Italy, Polan, Russia and many other countries all over the world they fly in to the International airport at Kathmandu most because they going to try and climb Mount Everest and are to fly first into Lukla. They all have heard about Lukla Airport and it is “the most dangerous airport in the world”. It is said that “Treakers” fear landing at Lukla more than climbing Mount Everest. They are all asking questions like little children very nervous and laughing and giggling all pretending not to be afraid. I have noticed that my passengers are comfortable and confident with our airline and our professional pilots. This is obvious to me because when we are flying along after we are airborne they are busy taking photograph, not worrying about anything, that is until we get to Lamijura Pass.  Lamijura Pass is enroute to lulka and where it starts getting noticeably different and a little more hazardous and after that they are more aware of the danger lurking ahead and maybe scared.  I is then I become aware of the passengers and notice them pretending to be laughing and some even praying. But at that point everyone’s adrenaline is pumping quite heavily and they are all very nervous. Me too some time I get uncomfortable when the weather is very bad, only ignorant person would not be nervous going into Lukla. 

As their pilot, or even the crew members, cannot show their fear, we must be cool calm and collected, after all we their professional pilots and they depend on our training and capabilities.  I cannot show my nervousness or fear. I must be confident. 

Airlines in Nepal will not release pilots to fly into Lukla so easily, the Captain or Pilot in command (PIC) who is the commander of the flight. PICs are very experienced and “High Time” (lots of flying hours) pilots who must to go through the many, many of checks before they are ever cleared to fly to Lukla. The Liability is so high to the Airlines, this is never taken for granted by anyone at the Airlines there are so many “Safe guards” in place; it take almost more than 8 years to take command to fly that route and hundreds of checks and exams. So you see, it is not an easy thing to accomplish, be a STOL cleared pilot in Nepal. A Pilot flying in Nepal in the Himalayas is required to master everything Navigation, Weather, Aircraft control, Geographical knowledge, creative mind and quick decision maker etc. Our companies spend thousands of dollars to maintain our proficiency, knowledge and skills for our training in abroad and also in Nepal. 

We fly to Lukla in the morning when the winds are calm. That is the only time you can safely fly into that area and count on living to fly again another day but it is not always gusty in Lukla it’s almost clam in the morning time.  

The danger early in the morning is; you must have enough light to see so the sun must be rising, not before daylight, its light wind but as the day begins and sun rises higher and gets hotter the winds start getting more gusty right? In the morning it’s almost clam but we have another problem, and that is Sun-glare. The sun light falls directly into eyes when entering Lukla Valley so our eyes are adjusted and adapted to the bright Sun-glare but as you must begin to descend into valley its totally dark because the runway is inside valley is surrounded  by large mountains its very hard to see. We must fly very close to the mountains and the shelves that jut out from them and you can clip a wing tip if you lose altitude or get the least bit disoriented with your temporary sight loss impairment. 

I want tell you at this point; remember that weather conditions can change in a minute at this altitude here at Lukla. It can start raining while the sun is shining, a fog bank can roll in, in a matter of minutes, high winds can gust down the Valley and slam your plane up and over up against the Mountain like a child’s toy, in a heartbeat without a warning. This is very serious business, flying into Lukla airport. You have one chance, if you blow it, as you say in America, “If you blow it, the consequences will be catastrophic!” 

Another problem when you are flying into Lukla airport is the problem of optical illusions. There are several that can throw you off your mind and make you have a bad landing and you cannot have a bad landing at Lukla. If you do, chances are you will only have one, and it will have a very good outcome I am afraid. 

The first optical illusion is that Lukla’s runway is a 6° or 12% gradient up-slope and every time you set up your approach the conditions are never the same, like I said they are always different every time. There in various wind condition, visibility is different, you must make your corrections automatically, and you never have time to think about it. You only have 1500 feet of runway and you have 19 passengers two other crew members’ lives depending on your abilities. At the end of those 1500 feet you have a solid wall of rock waiting on you and if your breaks fail to stop you and your reverser don’t do the job, we could all be a stain on that rock at the end of the runway. So you can’t think about that. 

You are on a straight in approach your passengers are watching every move you make, some are praying others have nervous laughing all are wiggling around trying to see out the windows shaking the whole plane. The pilot must constantly be aware of the aircraft’s trim and correct for unsual and usual natural occurances such as winds etc, all the while he must judge his glideslope and judge the optical illusions and make corrections accordingally. Your focus must be constant and locked on all the time with not any distractions. 

It is important I land immediately on the threshold or on the numbers and no further on the runway, I must use every centimeter of runway I can. Nothing can go wrong.  The 12% upward grade of the runway must be kept in mind in my flair out and corrected for in time because the weakest part the Twin Otter I am flying today is the nose wheel and if it hits first it will collapse and that will cause a crash. 

I have seen it many times, a nose wheel collapses and if they are lucky they go off the side of the runway into the apron and stop without a fire. Most are not that lucky. 

Another thing, you just don’t land at Lukla if there is a tail wind for obvious reasons. Because there are no missed approaches at Lukla airport. You land or you go back to Kathmandu or you crash. There is no go arounds at Lukla airport. No second chances. I have seen it too many times it is very critical here in Lukla once you descend you are committed you can’t go missed approach you must land. 

The approach is only one way its Runway 06 landing and 24 in take off  whatever the wind condition is most of our aircraft do not operate in Lukla when tail wind exceeds more than 10 knots. The air start to be unstable in final after 10 am with down drafts so we land on power and about cross wind its very often we are forced to face cross wind, Can you imagine a runway area is less than 100 feet wide with wall on its right side and cross wind from left it’s very difficult to land a aircraft with wing span of 65 ft if you do one mistake your wing tip will snap on the wall and take the wall fence out.  

When it has rained and the runway is wet already it’s even harder due to reduced effect of braking and hard control of aircraft upon landing. Pilots are always challenged at Lukla airport no matter what his experience is they should always be serious of what he is doing when flying into Lukla because there is no second chance. 

The ramp at Lukla is very small it can hardly accommodate three aircrafts but in busy seasons there are more than 5 aircraft and even while parking your eyes and ears and mind should be as sharp as knife always. 

At Lukla while landing your visibility is poor or your approach is bad due to the optical illusion causes you to be too low on approach you will hit the cliff at the starting of runway 06 as you can see in video (below). If you make a too high sapproach you will get higher airspeed on short final. As I’m sure you know; true air speed in high altitude is very much higher than indicated airspeed, so in high approach you will land on very high speed and may get slammed in wall at the end of the runway. 

Like I said; you have one chance in your approach because as you know turbine engines takes time to respond to power change, if you are low and if you add power, the few seconds delay, is the problem and will give no time for the correction, causing catastrophic results. So you see the illusion and confusion combined with the delayed power response time is the cause of the dangerous conditions.

Engine responses and power settings are different and aircraft performance is reduced in higher mountainous altitudes and it requires a well coordinated flying effort of the crew, ATC, Company management and our aircraft engineers. One mistake flying into any of these STOL Himalayan Airports can end in tragedy, that is the nature of our chosen profession of aviation, but it is especially true here in Nepal. We take our profession very seriously because we know our passengers deserve the safest, smoothest and most exciting flight as possible. Of course a lot depends on Mother nature’s mood on that day. 

Each time I land at Lukla I get my reward when my passengers applaud and shout with happy words of thanks to us for our safe flight landing. That makes us feel good and is a reward and it encourages us to do safe and smoother landings again, it makes us want to keep getting better and better in our skills. It makes us very proud when our passengers claps there hand up on landing and thank us and encourage us and ask us for photos.  We always try to accommodate them although about the photos, anyway who doesn’t like having their picture taken when someone is bragging on you, although we are very busy because of the short time limit we have to conduct our flight check in Lukla. 

There is no doubt in my mind, despite of the danger; I feel I have chosen a right profession. I love what I am doing, I have a deep passion for aviation I love flying and I am doing a good job. I like making my passenger happy. At the end of the day while returning to my home in the crew van after the long working hours in flight I feel satisfied by what I do and some time I smile alone remembering about funny things and what mother nature taught me today in flight.

(See Video Below watch actual landing at Lukla)

Approach at Lukla Airpiort

“Good Bye Lukla”

* These stories are indeed written by an actual working airline pilot in Nepal. The name, Ramesh Acharya is a pseudonym due to security purposes. In full disclosure, the publisher does edit the stories, to crystalize the author’s English since it is not his first language. All efforts are made not to change the storyline.

14 Responses to Flying The Himalayas

  1. Looking forward to your adventures!. I’m a frequent flyer and a huge fan of aviation. Although i mostly fly on trunk routes, but have been to some STOL airports including Jumla and Jomsom. Quite an adventure, it was… and like u said flying through the cloud feels really scary ..until you come out of it.
    Good luck and fly safe

  2. Raajesh we also would like to hear about your experiences and adventures too. If you would like to share some of your stories with us please do so. You can write them and paste them here, or write them and send the to our email: JRHaferAviationBlog@Rocketmail.com we will post them. either way you are welcome to do so. Do you fly into Paro Buhtan? Are you a pilot yourself? Either way we would like to hear more from you. Thank you, “JR” Hafer

  3. Amazing Ramesh…..I have a brother who is a Pilot and he too flies in Nepal. I know the danger associated with it but his passion doesn’t like to compromise.There’s a not single day when he is the air that we are not worried. I feel bad about the air accident happening frequently but I just pray for all you guys to be safe and sound always! I hope in the future better navigation techniques come to Nepal or some leading airline company as part of their CSR do something but as usual they are here to do business and make money not social work. I just hope you guys are blessed and hope never have to hear about such fatalities.

  4. We have an exciting story coming up next…. Watch for the story… “Flying into Lukla” … it is a thrilling account, a step by step a minute by minute, a thrilling adventure, From the pilot seat of a STOL Twin engine turbo prop airplane chunked full of passengers on a harroring flight from Kathmandu to the World’s most dangerous airport… “Lukla Airport” Nepal in Southern Asia at 9000 feet up the side of a Mountain where the climbers start their trek up Mount Everest, the Tallest Mountain in the world. Wow I am excited… You should be too. It is the most exciting thing I have ever read, it will be here soon watch for it, Watch for it, it is coming soon !!!!

  5. Sushant, Can you have your brother get in touch with us? Let him know about our blog and give him our email okay? JRHaferAviationBlog@Rocketmail.com we would like to get in touch with those brave aviators who fly to those dangerouse places, they all have stories they could tell us.
    Make sure you tell everyone you know about our blog. Invite them to share their love for aviation with everyone they know and help us promote and preserve twentieth Century aviation. JR Hafer

  6. I will try to post some more interesting stories which I have experienced during my flying carrier flying the Himalayas. Thanks to every one for all the positve response for reading the my story. Ramesh Acharya

  7. Carl Bowman says:

    Hello my name is Carl I am brom Burlington, North Carolina USA. These stories are great I am excited to read more stories about flying in Nepal wow. Can you tell us about the flying rules there? What are the differences in the laws there? Are all the airports STOL airports? Is it hard becoming a pilot in Nepal? keep writing your stories they are good to know about.
    Thank you. Carl

  8. Thelma says:

    Wonderful Blog I love the storys

  9. Regretfully we have not heard from either of our Nepali Pilots who were writing for our Blog. I am not sure if the Airlines have discovered who they were and have stopped them from writing (Which I suspect is the case, unfortunately) or if there is some other reason, for the sudden cease of communications. I am sure I would have heard, through my other sources, if there had been an accident. But since the Pilots were from different airlines and as far as I know didn’t know each other, that is beyond belief as well.
    We shall see in time, I will post any word as soon as I have an update, so Stand by… JRH

  10. The Dangers of flying in the skies on the roof of the world in Nepal, around and in the Himalyas surely have a built in hazard in itself. The Nepali airlines and their brave pilots are willing to accept the risks in order to serve their people simply because that is the only way to get food and supplies to the remote villages in the far off districts. We who live in first world countries do not realize what it takes to merely live and survive in this land so close to heaven. There are no golden roads there, But I can tell you there are a lot of wonderful brave people there who are like angels, and they do have wings. Their wings are Twin engine otters and similar aircraft that bring sustenance and hope to the people of Nepal.
    Of course there are going to be those dear lives lost as a cost, That is a sad but true fact of life. But the brave nepali people know if they don’t continue to fly in these conditions, no one else will. These men and women are the bravest Aviators in the world in my opinion. They fly in and out of the most dangerous air fields in the world, (who, in good conscience can really call them airports), often times in order to take thrill seekers to trek up the tallest mountain in the world, for what reason? Just, because it was there!
    I for one Salute and applaude all of my Nepali Friends, the ones I know and the friends I have not yet met, and to say thank you for showing me how to be a better example to others and a brighter shining light to others! Thank you all BRAVE NEPALI AVIATORS… JR Hafer

  11. Sherpa Doc. says:

    Dear Mr. Hafer,
    Thank you for posting wonderful things about my country Nepal. I am too an aviation enthusiast. Your blog is really interesting. Nepali aviators are no doubt the “real life superheros”, I would say. With the difficult terrain and weather conditions it a day to day challenge for these brave “angels with wings” like you said. My dad used to be one of them.

    I think there are some wonderful articles written by Capt. Vijay Lama that you may find it interesting about aviation in Nepal:

    http://nepalitimes.com/news.php?id=3349#.UPqpPKHF3Q0
    http://nepalitimes.com/news.php?id=18574#.UPqoRaHF3Q0
    http://nepalitimes.com/news.php?id=15129#.UPqonqHF3Q0
    http://nepalitimes.com/news.php?id=18036#.UPqoMqHF3Q0
    http://nepalitimes.com/news.php?id=5502#.UPqpN6HF3Q0

    Thank you once again for this wonderful blog and keep writing about aviation in Nepal.

    • Dear Sir, I appreciate your comments more than I can say, thank you.
      There is certainly a reason that Nepal and the Himalayas hold a special place in my heart and so many others as well. I can imagine flying at the roof top of the world so close to the entrance of heaven can be only a spiritual thing. I hope to visit Kathmandu some day. I have so many friends that hail from your country and I have never met one Nepali person who was not humble and likable especially those who are aviation enthusiasts.
      Thank you for your nice words about our blog and the stories we write. Thank you also for the links to additional stories. We will place the links on the page.
      Stay in touch. JR Hafer, Publisher

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