For pilots flying commercial jets into the Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe Airport in Leh, the toughest experience is not the landings and takeoffs but the training. The training mandated in order to certify pilots as qualified to operate on this airfield is several times tougher.
Every pilot operating in and out of this airfield has to go through a training exercise that requires them to operate with only one of two engines operational. The training exercise is carried out at the Leh airport, making it the only airport in the country where such a training is required.
While the Leh airport is one of the highest airports in the world at an altitude of 3,256 metres (10,682 feet) above sea level, the altitude is just one of the problems. Added to that the complexity of the flight path, which is between the mountains, making it the most difficult civilian airport in the country.
A senior pilot with Jet Airways, who has operated to Leh and is involved in training currently, explains the training regimen: “With only one engine, a pilot has to fly the plane over an escape flight path that flies over a river and smaller hills.”
An escape flight path is to be used for landing at the airport in case of any problem is reported with the aircraft.
“The idea is to acquaint the pilot with an escape route, which has minimum obstructions making its possible for the pilot to bring the aircraft back even with minimum power,” said the pilot.
Some of the pilots in training that The Indian Express got in touch with, did indicate the risks involved in single-engine training that, they felt, can easily be done away with.
“Instead, we can train on both engines by bringing down the combined power of both engines to the level of a single-engine powered aircraft,” said a pilot undergoing the training.
Another pilot added that the chances of a mechanical failure is much less in modern aircraft airlines are operating in the country.
Landing at Leh may be a risky affair but the emoluments for pilots operating flights to Leh is not huge and runs into a few thousand rupees per flight. What is then the incentive of flying to Leh?
“There are no huge monetary incentives and many pilots simply refuse to operate flights to the airport even after getting trained by the company. The single-engine training is expensive and costs runs into a few lakhs for the company,” said a senior pilot with Air India.
Baring Leh, other difficult airports are in hilly areas like Jammu, Srinagar and even Coimbatore, where hills starts 20 miles after the plane takes off. Patna is also in the list of tricky runways, where trees come in the flight path.
“The airport in Patna is a short runway, which becomes serious due to the around 100-metre long trees on the flight path. Every pilot can land or takeoff in Patna and no special training is required,” said the pilot.
A special training on a simulator is required for other airports like Jammu, Srinagar and Coimbatore.