Thursday, November 6, 2008

Live to die another day

Speaking of my trip to Nepal in my previous post made me recall the tragic news last month that a small plane of tourists had crashed at the Lukla Airport in eastern Nepal, killing all aboard. Having flown in and out of that airport if it can truly be labeled such, I thought I'd share my adventure there. It is a "there but for the grace of God" experience as flying in this region is amazingly dangerous and requires extremely talented pilots.

Lukla is known as the gateway to the Himalayas. Most people going to Mt. Everest fly here from Kathmandu and then begin trekking. It is situated at about 9400 feet and there are no roads in the area, just mountain trails. Flights are very often delayed because of weather. It is windy, in and out of cloud cover, often rainy. I was stuck at the Kathmandu airport for 2 days waiting for good weather which consisted of flying in a cloud. Didn't seem like optimal conditions to me. Every now and then the white fluff would clear and I'd catch sight of the mountain peaks around us which seemed to be eye level -yikes!

The airport is one building beside a strip of dirt carved into the side of a mountain. The landing strip is very short at 1700 feet which appears to be 6" long from up in the air. It is set at an incline of 12% so after landing, gravity helps to slow the plane down as you hurtle towards the side of the mountain. There is no room for error as you approach.

My pilot tried to assure me of his skill saying that he'd never had to pull out of a landing before which was fortunate because there is no way to pull out. In other words, he hadn't wrecked yet. I recalled that information as we circled and circled before landing. He said the weather has to be perfect to drop down on the airport. It was a rough fast landing on dry dirt which has since been paved, surely giving the illusion of added safety. Just when I thought we were destined to crash into the mountainside, the pilot made a sharp right turn onto the helipad and quickly came to a stop. Everyone on my tiny plane (five passengers and 2 pilots, we were nearly on each other's laps) broke into applause afterwards. It is that nerve-wracking. It is often called the scariest airport in the world and I can vouch for that.

As if I didn't have enough to worry about around Mt. Everest what with avalanches, cerebral and pulmonary edema, hypothermia and the like knocking at the door, I couldn't help obsessing about the flight out. I considered walking the entire way back to civilization but everyone assured me it was safer to depart than approach the airport.
The take-off consists of speeding downhill to the end of the strip which is a 2000 foot drop-off to the valley below. If you don't quite pick up enough speed, there is a slight drop as you fall off the edge of the mountain until the plane (hopefully) recovers momentum. Another mountain seems to be in the flight path so the plane must quickly veer to the left to avoid it and continue gaining altitude. Again I had to wait a day for clear weather and I noticed a plane carcass covered by a blue tarp laying beside the runway from a previous crash. Way to instill some confidence. Here is the wreckage after the tarp blew away, in clear view of all approaching and departing aircraft. I've never been much of a nail biter but I nearly chewed my fingers off before takeoff.
I taped my departure but it is on videotape and I have yet to convert it to DVD so I can't share it. Here is a video I found on youtube that gives you an idea of what it looks like outside the plane. Inside the plane is another sensation altogether. Do you ever wonder how you would react under stress? Would you remember to stop, drop and roll? Would you remember self-defense training? Would you blank out and stand immobilized? If I could share the video, you would see that under stress I laugh maniacally. Nice to know I can be counted on in an emergency for some giggles. As it happened, we had a clean takeoff and return trip to Kathmandu and I have a crazy airport story to share.