True Adventures in Aviation

November 6, 2015

Our Himalayan trek came to a close yesterday evening as we limped triumphantly  into the village of Lukla through a ghostly fog. There were high fives and glasses of Khukri rum mixed with hot mango Tang (a cocktail we have dubbed the “Mango Tango Bango”). Dinner. Sleep. A Kathmandu-bound flight to catch in the morning.

No one can ever say if or when a scheduled flight will leave Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary airport, named for the Sherpa and the Kiwi who first summited the mighty Chomolungma, aka Mount Everest.

I thought it best not to leak this bit of trivia to my folks back home until after the flight, but the T-H airport has earned itself an infamous reputation that comes with a charming nickname: “The most dangerous airport in the world.” I’m not kidding- Google that phrase.

The aforementioned unpredictability/ unreliability of the flights is due to the fact that the Lukla airport, closed in by steep, mountainous terrain, is subject to dense fog and rough weather, which  makes takeoffs and landings quite hazardous given that the runway is not quite as long as my suburban backyard. There is no margin for error.

Our departure was charmed: we were in and out of the airport in less than an hour. This was due in no small part to the efforts of our superhero guide, Ang Dendi Sherpa, who expedited the baggage and ticketing processes with his usual unstoppable, Tasmanian Devil-esque energy.

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The Tenzing-Hillary airport is a dizzying study in efficient chaos. Crowded, dirty, tiny, looking more like the Amarillo bus station than the sole transit gateway to the Everest region, the T-H is a somehow functioning  free for all,  merging throngs taking the place of the usual organized lines. Security is lax at best: two members of our group absent-mindedly boarded with knives on their persons, an oversight that would have earned them iron-fisted cavity searches in any conventional airport.  Planes come and go every 5 minutes or so, landing and taking off on a thin dime, passengers jumping to the frantic shouting of flight numbers for boarding.

We climbed into the small, twin engine propeller plane under beautiful, blessedly clear skies, all of us acting on Jerry and Dendi’s recommendations that we choose right side window seats for the best views.

Takeoff is the meat of the experience, a full-throttle, ten second thrill ride. The pilot cues up at the start of the unbelievably brief runway, revs the engines to a roar, and hauls ass towards the edge of the sheer cliff where the runway runs out. There is no lift off: the plane simply plunges off the cliff. It is fantastic. We all cried out and laughed in wonder as the pilot leveled the plane, revealing gorgeous views of high peaks; Everest, Manaslu, Annapurna. Disembarking in Kathmandu felt like climbing out of a roller coaster. I wanna go again.