Fear of Flying
I have racked up quite a few air miles in my many years of globetrotting, especially in the developing world. I hate flying the local airlines, especially the many ones with terrible safety records, but for a regular traveller to poor countries there is no other alternative, even when the local airline is conducting animal sacrifices to the gods to help repair its planes, or repeatedly shooing huge, wild animals off their busy runways, if not crashing into the poor beasts while landing and taking off.
The major world airlines remain very safe to fly, even though many have transformed Economy Class into what I call Guantanamo Class. They provide absolutely minimal service, charge extra for everything imaginable, and jam Economy passengers into ridiculously tight spaces, especially on long haul flights, which are terribly uncomfortable and impossible to sleep on. Of course, it’s all about the money. And about spoiling their wealthy passengers in First Class and Business Class, off whom they make their big money. The ordinary folks in Economy are just there “to make up the numbers,” as the British say. A plane is a kind of class society, with the peasants crowded into the back and their moaning largely ignored. Hence long-haul flight Economy passengers are nearly guaranteed to arrive alive while feeling like they are half past dead.
Thankfully, many of the substandard airlines in Asia and Africa have either mercifully gone out of business or become a bit safer and more reliable.
My four flights on the happily now defunct Uganda Airlines in 1984 were not confidence inspiring, but not as chaotic as I expected them to be either. The problem was coping with bribe-hungry Ugandan officials. My four trips on Libyan Arab Airlines in 1986 were also uneventful. I was shocked, however, on my 1982 flight on Air Tanzania from Zanzibar to the then capital, Dar es Salaam, when I boarded and realized I had only a broken remnant of a seat belt. The plane was full, so there was nothing I could do about it and the flight attendant just shrugged her shoulders. It was a short journey and I figured it would be okay, but it was frustrating to see everyone else buckling up for take-off and landing while I could only hope there was no turbulence. My four flights on the former Burma Airways in 1985 were also a bit of an adventure and not just because the airline had already racked up eight fatal crashes. I thought it was bizarre that passengers were expected to heft their own luggage across the airport tarmac and take it to the back of the plane, where all the bags were loaded on board as they watched. On the positive side, at least you knew your luggage would not get left behind or placed on the wrong aircraft.
Nothing compares with Nepal’s fabulous mountains and trekking trails, or its (at least) twenty-eight fatal plane crashes. The country’s high-altitude airports and tiny air strips, some still unpaved, can be terrifying to land and take off from. Apart from the high-altitude destinations, flying in Nepal is not dissimilar from the brave work of the bush pilots in Canada’s far north. The most popular plane used in Nepal for their ridiculously short and narrow runways is the de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter, built specifically for its short takeoff and landing capabilities.
The Tenzing-Hillary Airport, named after the two famous men who first summited Mount Everest, but better known as Lukla, after the growing town that houses it, has been repeatedly described as the most dangerous airport in the world, most recently in a program on the History Channel. Despite its reputation the airport is very busy during trekking season as most hikers headed for the Everest region fly there to start the famous walk to Everest Base Camp. The tiny landing strip is situated at 2,895 metres (9,334 feet) and is surrounded by towering peaks. There was no tarmac until 2001, and landing there, or flying from there, which I did in 1984 and again in 2000, with my then wife and three children, was frightening, if exhilarating. The Lukla landing strip is only 30 metres wide and 500 metres long, miniscule by today’s aviation standards. There is also a layered drop-off of thousands of feet at the end of the runway. The most recent fatal crash, on May 27, 2017, occurred when the pilot, struggling to get his bearing in cloudy skies and heavy winds, missed the beginning of the runway by twenty metres and smashed into the wall of hard ground and huge rocks below it, killing both pilots and severely injuring the only other person on board.
Lukla itself is a fun place with lots of funky shops, pubs and restaurants on its single cobblestone ‘street’, my favourite being YakDonalds. I never ordered a Big Yak, although my family enjoyed yak steak in Namche Bazaar, two days walk from Lukla.
Standing at the end of the runway and watching the planes land is perversely entertaining. A Nepali police officer told me I couldn’t take pictures of the landings but after we had a friendly chat about life in Canada as a plane approached the runway he smiled and said “Go ahead. Take a picture.”
I have had no flying experience that can match the time I stood with my wife and kids in the short grass at Lukla in 2000, watching as planes landed and roughly bounced their way past us up the 11% incline, with the ice-cold wind whipping and the tires screeching.
That was followed by a creaky 180 degree turn just before the aircraft reached the rock wall at the top of the little runway and slowly rolled back to where prospective passengers were standing, hoping it was their plane, so they could take off and get the ordeal over with. Bouncing down that grassy runway with white knuckles digging into the arm rests, it seemed hard to believe the little Twin Otter would make it over the surrounding peaks, but somehow it did.
In fact all the many plane crashes at Lukla have occurred on landings, none on takeoffs that I am aware of. I have flown from Lukla to Kathmandu three times, but have studiously avoided landing in the busy little airport. I would rather take the lovely six-day trail walk to the airport, starting from the end of the road from Kathmandu to Jiri, which I highly recommend if your knees can take an extreme amount of up and down. In 1985 I enjoyed a delightful one-hour, one-on-one interview with the legendary mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary in Edmonton and we talked about the loveliness, peacefulness and much less crowded nature of the walk-in from Jiri. I did not think it appropriate to raise the issue of flying accidents in Nepal, as Hillary’s wife Louise and daughter Belinda perished in a fiery crash, shortly after takeoff from Kathmandu’s international airport, March 31, 1975.
The flight I found the most frightening, even terrifying, was the one into Juphal in western Nepal at the beginning of the three week-plus Dolpo trek in 2014. I could barely breathe as we approached the small, grassy air strip, coming perilously close to the hillsides and massive protruding rocks to our right. There have been no fatal accidents here so it may not be all that dangerous but it really FEELS dangerous. Leo, one of our trekkers and a licensed pilot, sat in the first row to get a close-up look at the approach and landing, and was impressed by both the pilot’s skill and how much of it was needed. I didn’t see it, but Leo said both pilots were breathalyzed before the plane took off, which I approve of. If I am going to be killed I at least want to be killed by a sober pilot.
I asked our very experienced trek leader if over time she got used to the dodgy flights. “No,” she said. It was the worst part of her job.
Just getting to Nepal by plane can be a dangerous proposition. The approach to Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu is somewhat problematic as demonstrated by two major fatal accidents involving international flights trying to land. In July, 1992, a Thai Airways plane smashed into a mountain at 8,250 feet as it approached the airport, killing 113 people. Two months later a Pakistan International Airlines flight also crashed on its approach into a mountain at 11,500 feet with a loss of 167 lives. Taking off from Tribhuvan is even more dangerous, with quite a few fatal crashes.
Nothing matches some of the other problems the Nepalese officials have encountered at Tribhuvan. The most bizarre that I know of occurred after Nepal Airlines spent a great deal of money to obtain two Boeing 757-200s for major international flights within Asia. One of the planes worked fine, but the other suffered from a series of electrical malfunctions making it unfit to fly in 2007. Company officials responded logically.
They slaughtered a pair of goats in front of the troubled airplane as a sacrifice to appease Akash Bhairav, the Hindu god of sky protection. The next time my hockey team, the Edmonton Oilers, goes on a losing streak, I would suggest sacrificing a goat or two at centre ice to the Gods of Hockey. Why bother with trades or coaching changes when success is just a goat away?
Wild animals on the runway are also a major problem at Tribhuvan. On October 15, 2016, a Druk Air flight from Bhutan had to abort its landing and postpone all flights because there was a male goat roaming around on the airstrip, no doubt desperately trying to avoid being sacrificed to Akash Bhairav. On April 3, 2017, the airport had to shut down because a leopard was spotted wandering on the landing strips. Apparently, they have not heard of the new miracle invention – fences. Or better yet, high walls. According to the Hindustan Times, there have been similar incidents on the Tribhuvan runway featuring monkeys, dogs, goats, cats, cattle and even water buffalos. It is like trying to land a plane in the middle of a zoo with all the cages open.
In 2015 the European Union banned planes from all Nepalese airlines from entering its airspace on safety grounds. Nepal Airlines, Yeti Airlines, and Tara Air, all of which I have flown on, get a measly one star out of seven on the official Airline Safety website. Shangra La Airways, which I also flew on, didn’t even make the list. These are things you really don’t want to think about much when you are boarding one of these planes. I have also flown local airlines in India and they experience similar problems. In November, 2014, a Spicejet aircraft carrying 140 passengers collided with a water buffalo on the runway of Surat Airport while trying to take off. No passengers were killed but it didn’t turn out so well for the water buffalo. A subsequent search uncovered a few more of the buffalos wandering around the airport. What did I say about fences and walls?
In 2008, a Kingfisher aircraft hit a dog on the runway of Bangalore International Airport. The following year another plane hit a pig at Nagpur airport. 2011 was a record year at Nagpur as a deer was killed by a Jetlite Airways flight, two pigs were killed the following month by the wheels of a landing Air India jet and five days later a four-horned antelope was crushed by another Air India jet landing.
If you want to fly around these poor, but beautiful, mountainous countries and mingle with the wonderful people who live there you will have to accept an elevated level of risk, and only you can decide how much risk you are willing to put up with. The moderate danger of flying on some of these shaky airlines has never stopped me from visiting and trekking there. Besides, even on the worst planes flying with the worst airlines to a very dodgy Himalayan airstrip your odds of living to tell about it are very, very good, if that is any comfort.
I mean, I’m still here.
Feature image: Bangla Airline plane crash, Kathmandu, Nepal