A view of the runway at Tenzing-Hillary airport, also known as Lukla airport, from the pilot’s perspective. Picture: LOOP IMAGES/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES
A view of the runway at Tenzing-Hillary airport, also known as Lukla airport, from the pilot’s perspective. Picture: LOOP IMAGES/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP/GETTY IMAGES

On Saturday, three people died after a light aircraft departing Lukla airport in Nepal strayed off the runway and collided with a parked helicopter, killing the pilot of the plane and two bystanders. It’s the latest accident in a string of several at the airport, which is the preferred destination of the increasing numbers of hikers wishing to ascend the slopes of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak.

Officially known as Tenzing-Hillary airport — named after Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the two men credited with the first summit of Everest — it has earned itself a reputation as being one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous airstrips.

The landing strip, which measures a mere 527m, requires high levels of skill on the part of pilots who land there, who must first navigate the tricky terrain of the slopes of the Himalayas before landing. In fact, the conditions at the airport are so dangerous that pilots have to be especially certified before they can carry passengers and land there.

According to a report by The Telegraph, pilots “have to be certified, especially to land at Lukla, having made at least 100 landings and take-offs on short runways and worked in such conditions for at least a year in Nepal. Before being allowed to fly solo, they must have completed 10 landings and take-offs in Lukla with a qualified instructor.”

Built in 1964 under the supervision of Hillary, the landing strip at the airport was only paved in 2001. While the approach and landing offer one of the world’s most picturesque experiences, with magnificent views of the peaks of the Himalayas mountain range, there have been several fatal accidents over the years, including the death of 18 passengers in 2008 when a Twin Otter plane crashed on approach, killing everyone on board except the captain, and “at least five other accidents since the turn of the century.”

The situation is not helped by the fact that when approaching the landing strip at Tenzing-Hillary, pilots have to navigate their way without the assistance of modern navigation systems available to them at modern airports.

None of the three airlines that offer flights to the airport is recommended as safe by the British Foreign Office, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of tourists, wishing to have their own Hillary-Norgay experience, putting their lives in the hands of pilots expected to land planes on the short runway in nerve-racking conditions without hitting the brick wall that lies at its end.

The danger of the airport seems to be just an added attraction for adrenaline junkies seeking to scale their way to the top of the world. But if you’re going to the Himalayas for a business meeting, perhaps it’s best if you find another way to get there.