An excerpt from the Iranian Intercept
Tuesday, 19 December: Dudh Kosi Valley, Nepal
Flying in the Himalayas is a fusion of wonder and fear. The awe-inspiring panorama of the high mountains acts as a powerful drug subduing the senses, blocking out the inescapable reality that death awaits those who linger in its spell. The hypnotic trance may lure the unsuspecting to the side of a cliff. Engine failure results in a harrowing decent to the rocks below. Wind shear, an invisible, unexpected, and deadly force, might at any moment, plunge the frail craft into the void.
Following the valley of the Dudh Kosi River, as it closed in narrower and narrower, was akin to flying into the jaws of a mythical monster, the jagged mountains forming its teeth. The small aircraft continued on its way skirting rough walls, pummeled by bursts of turbulence, straining to maintain its course. I searched the valley walls for our destination.
No one spoke. The furious roar of the propeller and the low rumble of the slipstream rushed past the cockpit.
The pilot broke an awkward silence, "Can you see it?"
I pressed forward in the harness, straining to find it. "No, just the mountains."
He pointed. "There at one o'clock, past the village, up the side valley. Namche Bazaar."
"All I see is a small brown spot."
Ahead, a gash on the side of the ridge appeared about three kilometers away. A twinge of anxiety welled up as I awaited the approach and landing on such a tiny speck. Further up the valley, low cloud cover was beginning to form, merging the valley with the white slopes of the mountains.
I was about to seek reassurance from the pilot when the brawny man behind me leaned forward and spoke to the pilot.
"Es ist so klein." I could smell his fear. He asked if it was safe. "Ist es sicher?"
The pilot answered, "Ja Ja, kein Problem." He asked the man if he was okay. "Ist alles in Ordnung?"
"Machen Sie sich keine Sorgen." He told him not to worry.
"Mir ist schlecht."
He brusquely told him, "Bitte nicht erbrechen," not to throw-up.
"Ich bin krank."
"Hörst du mich — nicht erbrechen."
The pilot leaned towards me. "These guys from the east are not so tough. He says he is sick."
"The east, what do you mean?"
"One of the eastern lands. Can tell from his accent." That simple comment should have set off alarm bells, but the enormity of the spectacle before me short-circuited my internal warning system.
He banked right and changed course up the new valley. Ahead, at 12,500 feet, lay the world's highest airport. Syangboche airstrip, less than 400 yards in length perched on a ledge 1,500 feet above the river below. It would be like landing on an aircraft carrier.
The pilot, a confident and cheerful Swiss, a legendary mountain flyer, tracked the edge of the cliff to our right as he fought the turbulence.
"The clouds are closing in. I must take off again as soon as we load up. Hope the bastards are ready for me. I do not stay for long."
The small plane trembled as turbulent air threatened to drive it into the rugged cliff looming above. The single engine Pilatus Porter banked to the left to begin the final approach. A fierce gust shook the small craft causing it to slide away from the postage stamp sized landing strip. We drifted straight towards a rocky ridge. He dipped the nose, eased the throttle forward, gained speed, tracked right, and then left again. The aircraft was back on course. We would land on an up-hill grade that ended at a jumble of rocks below a small cliff.
Another wind shear shook the craft as he eased the throttle back to idle, deployed the large flaps, and brought the nose up for landing. The aircraft shuddered as it decelerated below forty-five knots and gently touched down with a slight thud. With full brakes and reverse thrust, the Porter achieved a remarkably short rollout after landing, with plenty room to spare. The brawny man let out an audible sigh of relief.