EXPLAINER: Everything Wrong with Nepal's Lukla Airport

By Cate Margaret Paspos

Aviation Safety Network database logged Nepal's 10th fatal plane crash in a decade last May 29 with 22 deaths- no survivors.


Questions about Nepal's riskiest runway in Lukla once sparked after the Tara Airplane, a Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter, crashed into the Himalayan mountains at about 14,500 feet high. Binod B.K. of Nepal's home ministry mentioned on CNN that the weather forecast was a factor in the accident since it was "cloudy with brief thundershowers," impairing visibility and contact.
 
The airport has received labels such as "The World's Most Dangerous Airport" by Forbes Travel section (2019) and the History Channel (2010) in their program Most Extreme Airports. 
 
The United Nations agency, International Civil Aviation Organization, started prioritizing renovations in Nepali airports through the Aviation Safety Implementation Assistance Partnership in 2015; Nepal and ICAO announced a partnership two years after.
 
Lukla's short single runway was built in 1964 under the supervision of mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, paved in 2001, and has received renovation ever since. A new helipad constructed in 2018 started operating last July 2021 to enlarge the accommodation in the region.
 
Aspiring trekkers of Mt. Everest have to go through the danger of this airport, which is a known point of entry and exit for said landform. The gorgeous tourist spot and trekking goals sub-range of the Himalayas makes Lukla Airport second to Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) as the country's busiest runway, especially between March-May and September-November. 
 
Elevated Topography

Nepal's Civil Aviation Authority has considered the hostile topography a problem for pilots in their 2019 safety report, so they only allow pilots who have completed 100 short-takeoff-and-landing with ten instructed flights in Lukla before flying solo to the region.
 
Even with strict qualifications, hardships are still experienced—particularly by small aircraft destined in mountainous parts of the country. Himalayas mountain range and other rugged terrains cause difficulties in navigation for air traffic controllers, which may worsen by the weather.
 
Tenzing-Hillary Airport's elevation of 2,846 meters with a 527 m runway long makes the landing near mission impossible. At these altitudes, aircraft reduce lifts due to lower air density's dangerous impact on its generated power; slowing the plane down to landing is also a challenge due to reduced air resistance. 
 
Longer runways can help pilots slow down a plane at high altitudes; however, Lukla's runway is undeniably short. In a side-by-side comparison to the 11th highest elevated airport, Golog Maqin Airport in Qinghai Province, China, is 3,700 meters above sea level and has a 3,800m length runway for safety measures. 
 
Unpredictable Weather

Lukla is a 30 min flight from TIA in Kathmandu, Nepal, yet the weather can be different in the two places. Pilots turn around and return to Kathmandu immediately in such circumstances.
 
Sudden weather changes vary between extreme clouds, mist, fog, rainstorms, or snow causing low visibility- and resulting in 50% of flights getting canceled during Nepal’s monsoon season, June to August. Most flights are scheduled for the early morning since it is frequently cloudy in the afternoon.
 
Fatal Record

Yeti Airlines Flight 103 of 2008 was one of the notable fatal accidents in the region. During the final approach, the pilot lost visual contact due to bad weather conditions that killed 18 lives- all 16 passengers and two of the three flight crews- in the plane crash, and only the pilot survived.



REFERENCES:

[1] Ahlgren, L. (2021, January 29). Why Is Lukla Nicknamed The World's Most Dangerous Airport? Retrieved from Simple Flying website. https://simpleflying.com/lukla-most-dangerous-airport/

[2] Aviation Nepal. (2021, June 6). Lukla Airport: New helipad to inaugurate by the end of July (Photos). Retrieved from Aviation Nepal website. https://www.aviationnepal.com/lukla-airport-new-helipad-to-inaugurate-by-the-end-of-july-photos/

[3] Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal. (2019). Aviation Report Safety 2019. https://caanepal.gov.np/storage/app/media/aviation-safety-report-2019.pdf

[4] Escape Manila. (2021, September 15). 11 Highest Altitude Airports in the World. Retrieved from Escape Manila website. https://www.escapemanila.com/2021/07/highest-altitude-airports-in-the-world.html

[5] Irving, I. (2021, October 29). Lukla, Nepal: the Most Dangerous Airport in the World. Retrieved from Culture Trip website. https://theculturetrip.com/asia/nepal/articles/this-is-the-number-one-most-dangerous-airport-in-the-world/

[6] Mogul, R. (2022, May 31). Why is it so risky to fly in Nepal? Retrieved from CNN website. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/05/31/asia/nepal-plane-crash-air-travel-risks-intl-hnk/index.html

[7] Nikel, D. (2019, July 20). Lukla: The World's Most Dangerous Airport. Retrieved from Forbes website. https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidnikel/2019/07/20/lukla-the-worlds-most-dangerous-airport/?sh=a92db254a1a9

[8] Sharma, B. (2022, May 29). Plane crashes in Nepal with 22 aboard, Government says. Retrieved from The New York Times website.  https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/29/world/asia/nepal-plane-crash.html

[9] The Kathmandu Post. (2017, May 1). TIA to be expanded at cost of $500 million. Retrieved from The Kathmandu Post website. https://kathmandupost.com/money/2017/05/01/tia-to-be-expanded-at-cost-of-500-million
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