The flight to Lukla is considered one of the most dangerous and flights in the world.
What makes this flight so dangerous? It is actually the landing strip at the Lukla airport. It has one of the shortest runways in the world measuring 525 meters (1,729 feet long) and it is one of the highest airports on earth at 9,334 ft (2,845 m). Combine that with the steep grade of the runway dangling off the side of a mountain, and you’ve found yourself landing at the world’s most dangerous airport.
Kathmandu to Lukla
Imagine flying through the Himalayas in a tiny twin engine aircraft as flashes of “obstacle alert” continuously flash on the pilot’s rudimentary instruments.
This scenic flight isn’t exactly something normal people look forward to doing. But when trekking to Mount Everest base camp, it is necessary as the trek begins in the town of Lukla. Unless you want to add several days to your trek (when the Nepal visa is only good for 30 days) you don’t have a lot of choice but to fly into the Everest region from Kathmandu.
Note: Lukla flights have been suspended from Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu due to congestion and are now rerouted from Ramechap airport. We did not take this flight, so we can’t explain what it is like to fly from Ramechap Airport, but the thrill of flying into the Lukla Airport will be no less thrilling.
Lukla Flights are Dangerous
Our trip began in Kathmandu where we booked a tour to Everest Base Camp. We were about to spend two glorious weeks in the Everest region. We really didn’t know what to expect but we had heard horror stories about flights to Lukla.
Lukla flights are notoriously dangerous. Since 2000 there have been 7 crashes killing 50 people. Needless to say, the safety records of flights are dismal to say the least. The most recent crash was in April 2019 killing three people as the plane veered off the runway crashing into a helicopter.
Because the landing strip is so short landing is difficult. Pilots have to work hard to slow the planes down before they crash into the mountain wall at the end of the runway. Add to the narrow path of only 20 meters (65 feet) there isn’t room for a lot of error.
We got to the airport early in the morning after a sleepless night. Not only were we about to fulfill our dream of trekking to Everest, but we had to get there first. And it all starts with landing at the most dangerous airport in the world.
Kathmandu to Lukla
Kathmandu airport is crowded and chaotic. I can understand why things have moved to Ramechap Airport. When they say the Kathmandu Airport is congested, they mean it. Luckily, our guide Dipendra was flying with us and helped us navigate through the chaos.
Our Lukla flight was booked with Tara Air and we felt pretty confident As we understood, Tara is the most popular airline to fly to Lukla. There are two other airlines that fly into Lukla though, Summit Air and Sita Air are also popular.
We had a short bus ride from the airport to the tarmac and boarded our plane from outside. It was a small twin otter airplane that holds about 20 people. It looked a little rough around the edges, but we were “all in” at this point, so we held our breath and got on the plane.
The weather was foggy and grey and we were hoping for a sunnier day. In 2008 flight crashed due to foggy conditions killing 50 people when it missed the runway in Lukla and I wasn’t thrilled about landing in bad weather on the short runway of Lukla Airport.
But as we left the Kathmandu Valley, the clouds opened to blue skies and we started to relax into our scenic flight of the Everest region en route to Lukla Nepal.
The hour-long flight is a huge thrill. It’s a bare-bones flight with no cabin service, but what it lacks in ambiance, makes up for views and excitement.
We sat at the front of the plane and saw the pilot’s instruments constantly flash “obstacle ahead.” It looked as if we were about to crash into a mountain at any time. The entire view in front of us was one massive mountain after another!
We also got our first glimpse of Mount Everest. What a beauty!
There was a bit of turbulance during our flight that made my heart jump in my throat, but I kept looking at the pilot and he seemed cool as a cucumber. He has probably done this Lukla flight a thousand times. (at least that is what I hoped.)
What is the Best Side of the Plane to Sit On
- The best side to sit on during flights to Lukla from Kathmandu is the left-hand side for the best views of the mountains.
- On the way back from Lukla to Kathmandu choose the right-hand side for the best views.
The flight goes by fast and before we knew it, we were glimpsing over the cockpit window staring at a tiny landing strip. Were we really going to land a plane there in the middle of the mountains? Needless to say, we held our breath during landing.
View of Lukla Runway
When the plane came to a stop, we started breathing again. We had arrived at Lukla Airport. Officially named the Tenzing Hillary Airport, it is a crazy airstrip dangling off the side of a mountain. It is short, it is steep and it falls thousands of meters into an enormous valley.
it is fitting that it was named after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, the first two men to summit Mount Everest in 1953. These two men took a great risk climbing to the summit of Everest then, and now the people who follow in their footsteps take great risks just to reach the start of the trail!
I must admit, I felt a bit giddy. Not only for surviving flying to Lukla, but to be following in the footsteps of legendary adventurers. The first obstacle was out of the way, now it was time to trek.
Lukla to Kathmandu – Two Weeks Later
What is scarier than taking a flight on a small twin otter airplane through the Himalayas of Nepal from Kathmandu to Lukla? Having to take a flight back in even rougher weather.
We survived the flight to Lukla, but we were pressing our luck getting on a plane again. I was more nervous about going back to Kathmandu. I almost suggested trekking out of the Lukla rather than flying.
Taking off on that short of a runway was not something I wanted to do.One false move and we’d drop thousands of feet into the valley floor below.
During our trek back down from Everest, I dreaded the thought of getting back on a plane.
The Return Trek
After two weeks of trekking the most famous mountain range on earth, it was time to return to civilization. We had three days of trekking back down and we were praying for good weather. Flight cancellation is not uncommon in Lukla. Weather conditions can change in an instant.
Sure enough, while trekking down we heard rumours that planes had been delayed for three days due to weather. This did not look promising for us.
We really wanted to get back down and out of the mountains as we were now over this trek. The thing about trekking is, once you have reached your goal, all you want to do is get back down and move on to other things. The climb is over, the excitement is gone and you are sick and tired of hiking.
All we wanted was to catch a flight off that mountain and enjoy some pasta and a spa day back at Kathmandu. We kept walking and praying that by the time we reached Lukla, the weather would change flights would resume.
We reached Lukla early afternoon and heard that both flights to Lukla from Kathmandu and flights out of town had been cancelled. We still had a day, so we hoped things would change.
Stuck in Lukla Nepal
On the morning of our flight we awoke to grey clouds and fog. We were scheduled to fly out at 9:00 but that time came and went and we were stuck.
The problem with being delayed in Lukla is that there isn’t a lot to do there. Prices are high and the village is small. We went for a walk and circled the area in about an hour. We had books to read, but we were anxious to leave and we were tired
At least there was a “Starbucks” to hang out in. It isn’t the real Starbucks Coffee, but it was comfortable and sort of warm with decent lattes.
So with nothing else to do, we sat and waited….and waited.
Read all our tips to Trekking Everest Base Camp
Bad Weather in Lukla
As much as we wanted out of Lukla, we didn’t like the looks of the black abyss at the end of the runway. I was willing to wait for flights until the weather cleared. I just prayed that it wasn’t too many days of waiting.
After a few hours, we heard a group of planes finally flying in from Kathmandu. Things were looking up! If flights could come in, maybe flights could go out?
Once the planes landed, we got word that flights were going out. It was nearing the end of the day and we were scheduled for round three.
Round one had made it through and round two was flying out mere minutes after the planes arrived. Would round three be a go? If the weather held off we would be back to Kathmandu by the end of the day.
We waited at our hotel for word. It finally came that we were to the airport and check-in.
Two more planes came in from Kathmandu one after another and as quickly as the passengers were filing off, we were filing on. We had barely enough time to strap in to one of the 14 seats on the tiny plane before the pilot took off.
A Rough Flight Back to Kathmandu
I looked at the window across the aisle. It had a crack that was taped shut with duct tape. Was this flight even going to be safe? Or were we going to join the other infamous Lukla flights that had gone down in flames?
The takeoff from Lukla airport is terrifying. The short runway plunges into a deep valley surrounded by the Himalayas. I couldn’t look out the window for fear that we fall off the end of the airstrip before getting liftoff.
I kept telling myself that the pilots are professionals, they do this several times a day. Every day.
There was a jolly Sherpa in the seat beside Dave that kept me calm. He had obviously taken this flight many times. He was relaxed and when the weather was rough I looked to him to make sure he was still smiling.
Not long into the flight, we hit severe turbulence. When I looked over to the friendly Sherpa, his smile had faded to a look of worry and dread.
We were tossed around like a rubber duckies in a wave pool. Everyone fell silent. There was an uneasy feeling and the mood was heavy. We hit an air pocket so hard that if we weren’t wearing our seat belts we would have gone head first into the ceiling.
All we wanted was to get out of Lukla earlier that morning and now we wished that we had waited an extra day for the air to clear.
Views from the Lukla Flight
I reached behind to grab Dave’s knee with my sweaty palm. I clenched his leg and thought to myself, “Well at least if we crash we will be together”
I tried to look out the window to relax. Maybe if I face my fears head-on and embrace the view I will feel better. But the constant swaying, bumping, and rocking made me airsick. Even Dave, who has the steadiest of nerves was silent and stressed.
My mind wandered and I went through all the times I had been rude, complained, or was short with people during our travels. I worried that Karma was coming to bite me in the ass. I vowed to be a better person if I survived this flight. Seriously, I thought about these things.
This Lukla Flight was the Longest 45 Minutes of My Life
When we landed, the jolly Sherpa laughed and clapped his hands. I knew then that we were on a flight that made even the most frequent fliers of the Himalayas shake in their boots.
We talked to a fellow trekker that was on the other plane that flew out just before us as we picked up our luggage in the parking lot. (Yes, we picked up our luggage in the parking lot)
She threw up on her flight and looked dazed and shocked. I am surprised that people didn’t throw up on our flight myself included. We all seemed a little shell shocked by the experience. But we were safe now.
The sun was shining bright and it was warm and breezy in Kathmandu. We had been cold for two weeks and had forgotten how warm it was at a lower altitude.
We survived Everest, We survived that flight and now all we had to do was survive that taxi ride through the insane traffic back to the guest house.
As with everything in our travels Dave can now say, “Been there, done that and bought the T-shirt to prove it.”
Read More about Nepal and Himalayan Travels
- Everest Base Camp Trek – Ultimate Guide to Hiking Everest in Nepal
- 30 Tips for Trekking to Everest Base Camp
- Remarkable Everest Base Camp Trek in Photos
- Where to Eat in Kathmandu – Eight Great Spots to Indulge After Your Trek
- Top 6 Places to visit in Kathmandu, Nepal
- Bhutan Trek to Laya – A Himalayan Adventure to the Remarkable and Remote
- Bhutan Travel Tips