Flying along the highest mountains in the world and operating on airports considered as some of the most complicated is the daily job for the people of SITA Air in Nepal. Tourists and locals find on their services one of the few ways to connect isolated towns.
By Santiago Rivas
One of the most famous airports in the world, and considered by many as one of the most dangerous, the runway of the small town of Lukla, in Nepal, called Tenzing-Hillary Airport, is the destination for all those who want to visit the Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, both to climb it or just to see it from below. Its name comes after Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who were the first to reach the top of the Everest on 29 May 1953.
Its runway of just 460 meters is on the side of a hill, at 9,383 feet of height, but it’s main feature is that has a 12% gradient, with a cliff 600 meter high on one end and the mountain on the other, making it to seem as extremely dangerous. But for those who operate on a regular basis at the airport, this is not the case. Rajendra Singh is the Managing Director of SITA Air, one of the very few airlines who fly to mountain destinations in Nepal, including Lukla, and he explains that, despite he is not a pilot, he knows that landing on that airport is safe and easy. “Unfortunately, Lukla has a bad name in terms of being a dangerous airport, which is not, in fact is one of the smartest engineering designs in the world. Aircraft come to a halt without even applying brakes thanks to the gradient. There is only one way of approach, yes, that makes consider it’s dangerous, but a high-speed aircraft like the Dornier 228 can come to a halt within 300 and 350 meters if it lands between at 80 and 90 knots and approaches correctly. People obviously get anxious and have a lot of excitement when they board the plane for Lukla and when they land everybody claps, because they came with the same idea, thinking this is one of the most dangerous airports in the world, but when they see that is so easy to land, then they ask why is it called a dangerous airport. Especially with Dorniers the landing is not that harsh, as you land on high speed. The passengers don’t feel it dangerous” describes Singh. An approach to the airport is usually made at 10,000 feet, which is the cruise height for the flight from Kathmandu, then descending to 9.500 and reaching 80 knots they go for the landing.
This air service is fundamental, as Lukla is not connected by road and the closest to where the road reaches is a town called Phaplu and from there it can take between 3 to 4 days to reach Lukla on foot.
But Nepal is much more than Lukla and the Everest and tourists and locals have to move across the country, from the low areas where the main cities are to the small towns in the mountains. Having a very poor road system, on a very hard environment, the airplane is the best solution (and in many cases the only one) to travel around. But the environment and demand also limit the size and the type of aircraft that could be used. Mountains mean small spaces to place airports and, according to Singh, all runways on the mountains are less of 1,000 meters long, so a STOL aircraft is fundamental, but also has to be reliable, safe and profitable. This leaves very few options when it comes to carry passengers and cargo.
Created in 2000, in 2016 SITA Air was purchased by its current owners, having a fleet of two Dornier 228-202, one 228-202K and one 228-212, with whom they link eleven cities, starting with their main base in Kathmandu and from their other hub in Nepalgunj, to the west of the country and near the border with India. At that hub they also have their own workshops to perform the maintenance of the planes. From there they reach regularly Lukla, Tumlingta, Pokhara, Surkhet, Rara, Jumla, Bajura and Dolpa, plus other season destinations. Singh explains that Nepal “is a mountainous country and we have the highest peaks in the world, so we have a sizeable amount of tourists coming in to Nepal to climb the mountains. We have three regional mountainous airports located at over 3000 meters with a landing strip of about 750 meters length, including Lukla, which is the most famous one and is also known as the gateway to Everest, as if you want to climb the Everest you have to fly into Lukla and your journey starts from there”.
As Singh explains, another high airport where they operate is Jomson, on the Annapurna region, “that’s another famous mountain region where people goes for trekking and then there’s another airport in the western side of the country called Simikot, it is also situated around 2900 meters and we use it as a transit point for the Indian Pilgrims on their trip to Tibet”. Simikot runway is about 550 meters long, on the side of a mountain and with a cliff very close, making it also a challenging operation.
The location is mainly used by Pilgrims bound for Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, as it’s the closest town to reach those two places. From Simikot they cross the border at Hilsa on foot to reach their destination.
Operating on high airports in the middle of mountains means a challenge for the crews, especially for the weight limitations and the winds. “Nepal is very unique because we have both hot and high conditions, but we don’t have to operate on really high temperature conditions because we do not operate on the low land areas, we operate in high mountain areas, so our concern is mostly wind, bad weather and the STOL airport landing” says Singh. Anyway, on the base at Nepalgunj, while is very low, in summer they have more than 40ºC of temperature, and in a few minutes after taking off they reach 10,000 feet and the temperature drops down dramatically.
Wind is the other main worry for the pilots who operate on the mountains and, for example, at Lukla they can’t operate with more than 10 knots of tailwind. The impossibility to change the runway means that above that speed they have to cancel the operation. “The Dornier is probably the only aircraft that actually behaves on a very stable manner with crosswinds, we never push the limits and we operate safely, so we never fly with more than 10 knots of crosswinds. It’s not normal to have more than 10 knots except at certain hours of the day or at certain periods of the year when the wind starts before snowing” explains Singh.
Serving the locals
Apart from carrying tourists and pilgrims, the airline serves the local population, “during winters, when they want to come down to the lowlands and on summer when they want to go back to their villages on the mountains, plus we carry a lot of cargo to these areas where there’re yet no roads. Not all areas of Nepal are very well connected with roads, so is our responsibility to carry essential cargoes to support the way of life of the citizens around this areas”, tells Singh and adds: “to give you an idea, we ferry more than 45,000 tourist passengers to Lukla in a year, we have two season windows: spring and autumn. Autumn is about three months and spring is about two months, so in five months in a year we carry more than 45,000 people to Lukla. Since I bought the company, we haven’t had any incident and that means our reliability is about 98%.
In Summer it’s not tourist season in Lukla, so there’s not enough demand, we do have flights, but at a minimum, of one or maybe two flights a day, while during the high season we operate almost fifteen flights a day”. All routes are very short, between 22 to 35 minutes of flight, making possible a lot of flights per day but also meaning more cycles for the airframe and engine.
In all flights they usually never fly over 10,000 feet, to avoid the use of oxygen and to have more comfortable conditions for the passengers, despite sometimes, when they found bad weather, they have to climb to 12,000 feet or more. Also, they operate always on visual conditions, because of the mountainous environment, and can only operate by instruments at Kathmandu International Airport. There, the speed of the Dornier is an advantage, not interfering with the operation of the jet aircraft operating there.
When they operate on the higher aerodromes the airplanes have a limitation on the weight, but not a big one, having a maximum take off weight of 6,100 kilos on normal conditions, at Lukla they are limited to 5,700, which means they carry a maximum of 14 passengers from Kathmandu, instead of 18. Their closest competitor on that operation carries the full load, but it’s not EASA certified. Singh considers that, if tested, the Dornier can be also certified to operate with full load.
“Our four aircraft are quite old, but I believe the planes never age, because as long as you maintain the engines and structures your aircraft will perform fantastically well. The maintenance we do is mandatory, we can’t complain, there’s no exception on maintenance requirements”, tells Singh and, regarding the engines, he remarks that they are “one of the biggest strengths of this machine, they have a fantastic performance, the Dornier is possibly the aircraft that has the best single engine performance. We had experiences with one engine inoperative. We had a couple of incidents, I was in one of them, but the machine behaved very well and with full passengers the aircraft was easily returned to base safely, without any problem. Our flight attendants managed the situation and informed the passengers”, tells Singh and adds: “when I decided to buy the company, one of the reasons that attracted me and my partners was that the company was operating Dornier aircraft. We’ve seen this is one of the most proven and strong machines to operate on conditions like the ones in Nepal. I really like the Dornier, I also have experiences with people coming to me at Lukla and saying it’s very comfortable to fly” he concludes.