Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Everest flight by air - Joyful flying in Nepal

Everest flight by air - Joyful flying in Nepal

As Nepal’s tourism bounces back, the sector that has benefited the most is domestic aviation.

There aren’t enough planes, or enough hours in the day, to take tourists on an aerial sight-seeing trip to Chomolungma. On 31 August this year, airlines set a record with 31 mountain flights by Buddha Air and 12 by Yeti Airlines. Right through the autumn season, the two airlines reaped a windfall of tourism traffic.

This is one of the few flights in the world that takes off and lands from the same airport and at $140 per passenger, the margins are high (Nepalis and Indians pay Rs 7,000).

But as winter sets in, tourist volumes drop and poor visibility at Kathmandu airport due to fog restricts the number of flights. One recent morning, the fog closed the airport after five mountain flights had already taken off. The planes were diverted to Simara, Pokhara and one to Bhairawa.

Early morning at Kathmandu airport looks like the deck of an aircraft carrier with a dozen twin turboprop planes lining up to take off. Captain Ang Ghelu Sherpa lines up his Beechcraft on the runway and guns the throttle. Soon we are taking a wide climbing turn over Kathmandu Valley. Ganesh, Langtang and Dorje Lakpa immediately swing into view.

In other airlines, flight attendants are usually busy with safety drills or handing out food and drinks, but on this flight, stewardess T W Lama looks more like a school teacher as she points out various mountains to passengers.

However many times one has been on a mountain flight, every trip is different. Since this was early morning, there wasn’t much turbulence over the mountains so Captain Sherpa was flying right past Numbur and as we banked, there was Lukla right below us with its inclined runway.

Through the tilted cockpit window, Chomolungma moved from left to right. We were so close, you could see the wavey yellow limestone band on the south face of Lhotse. On the return leg, the passengers on the righthand side got their chance. They see right into the arid pastel mountains of Tibet and magnificient border peaks like Melungtse and Sishapangma. Abreast of Gauri Shankhar, we begin our descent, but Captain Sherpa informs us that Kathmandu airport is closed due to poor visibility.

Usually, such an announcement from the cockpit would be met by a collective groan from passengers. But inside this plane, there was jubilation. As we circled over Kathmandu waiting for the fog to clear, passengers got an extra hour of mountain flight for free.

Below, the fog draped Kathmandu like a quilt. The Himalaya stretched on to the west towards Himalchuli, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri. After finally getting his clearance, Captain Sherpa swooped down through the murky mist for a landing.

Was what we’d been through just a dream? Couldn’t be, there are photographs to prove we actually saw what we did.

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