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A crash landing in Shangri-La

April 07, 2000

JOMSOM, Nepal - After we'd had breakfast and a chance to settle down a little, the trip leader explained to us that, technically, it wasn't classified as a crash, although in my experience landing planes don't often make wild, 90-degree turns to prevent catapulting off then end of the runway into a slag-filled riverbed.

This flight into the Himalayas on Shangri La airlines had gotten our attention right off the bat when the pilot and the ground crew got into an animated argument over the positioning of several switches on the cockpit ceiling.

The flight originated in a city called Pokhara, and on these planes you don't buy a ticket, you buy a chance. Early each morning, before wind conditions make flying impossible instead of simply next to impossible, four tiny planes bore off into the mountains depositing trekkers who spend, on average, two or three weeks trying to find their way back out.

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The interior is devoid of roads so there are no cars, motorcycles or even bikes. Transportation is by foot, or occasionally horse. In the back of my mind I have this business plan to introduce these mountain-dwelling Nepalese to in-line skates. I calculate Rollerblading would cut their ETAs by at least half, but that is for later. Don't anybody steal the idea in the meantime.

Anyway, we got off the field - and I mean field - well enough, but no matter how rapidly we climbed, the alert traveler could not help but notice that the great white peaks on either side of Wiley Post-vintage aircraft, with its much-patched tanned leather bench seats and plank wood floors, were rising a heck of a lot faster than we were.

We flew into the mountains through a narrow canyon whose walls at times were a scant hundred yards from either wing.

Eventually, at our destination, the canyon widened into a fairly broad, arid valley which would have made for a relatively easy touch-down if the strip had been built on the same axis as the deep gorge from which we were emerging, which of course it wasn't.

I forgot to ask who it was that signed off on the final engineering study for the Jomsom airfield, but whoever it was must have had a pretty decent sense of humor about him. That or a very inquiring mind that asked itself probing, philosophical questions such as "What would it be like if a runway began at a cliff and ended at a river and there was no way for a plane to get to it without following a flight pattern that roughly resembled the letter Z?"

Which is what we did.

The pilot of the 20-seater whipped it strongly to the right on exiting the gorge. This put him in the negative position of being perpendicular to the landing strip so he banked steeply back to the left, eyeballed the runway alignment for about a second and a half, then just plopped the whole package down like a feedbag on a loading dock.

The first bounce took us into Tibet. The second bounce landed us in Kashmir. But on the third bounce we came back down in Jomsom, so all in all it worked out. By then we were all as nervous as a Q's tail in an alphabet stampede as Tom Robbins would say, and that was before that one last right-angle dodge that prevented us from keeping company with the trout.

My new friend Lynn - an unflappable British woman with a pure genius for understatement commented "My what an exotic flight - all that discussion in the beginning over how the plane worked."

The journey accomplishes one other thing too. It may be 150 miles, it may be sub-freezing, there may be no oxygen to speak of and there may be all-day, muscle-splitting climbs, - but after that particular flight into the mountains you are more than happy to walk back out.


Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist
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