Wednesday, 21 May 2008

On a wing and a prayer

One poor Nepalese lady on our flight into Lukla was so convinced we were all going to die on our approach that she wept uncontrollably for half and hour (perhaps longer) and was so weak with fear that she had to be carried off the tarmac by two men.

We, on the other hand, found the whole thing pretty exciting, but only because we had been fore-warned of the hairy landing we were about to experience - vital information which saved us from a fate similar to that poor woman.

Cockpits are usually the private domain of pilots and giggly air stewardesses. So we were pleased (at first) to find that on our tiny ancient twin propeller plane (known as a Twin Otter - seriously), we were sat virtually in the cockpit and could see straight out of the pilot's windscreen. Something that's a lot more pleasant at take-off than landing.

Lukla airstrip is a very short (450m) runway which sits on a ridge on the side of a mountain. It was originally built by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as an emergency airport for the local hospital, also built by them. The runway itself is on a slope so that when a plane comes into land it touches down and the upward slant of it helps the aircraft stop before smashing into the mountainside at the end.

It requires perfect visibility to land on this airstrip as no instruments are accurate enough to guide a plane onto it (this lead to our return flight being delayed by five hours).

Now imagine being up in a tiny plane watching it speed into a massive mountain with a little tarmac runway on it at 200mph. Pretty exhilarating stuff!

To give you a better idea of what I'm talking about, here's a video that I took of our plane lifting off again just after we landed (that really is the end of the runway you can see there - after that is a sheer drop):

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