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Replaying the first Everest flight

Flight over the world's tallest mountain retraces the route taken by two Scotsmen 80 years ago.
Last modified: 3 Apr 2013 21:00

It was 5:30 in the morning when we reached the airport to go on a flight around Mount Everest.

The airport had hardly opened and hundreds of people were queuing up to go in, most on their way to Lukla – the gateway to Everest.

Everyone wants a glimpse of Everest.

Growing up in Nepal with the mountains just around the corner, I had never understood the fascination with Everest.

For the longest time, I kept telling myself that Everest is just like any other mountains – a massive rock covered in snow and ice. Then, a few years ago, I saw it – from an aeroplane window.

Floating in the clouds in a small airplane, you can see the peak – standing tall and proud. It’s distinctive and without even meaning to, your eyes follow it. It's almost like a pilgrimage.

When the promise of flying even nearer the mountain came up, it felt stupid to let go of the opportunity.

Eighty years ago, two Scotsmen Douglas Douglas-Hamliton and George McIntire had taken a flight over Everest on small biplanes made mostly of wood and canvas.

We were to follow the same flight path with Hamilton's grandson Charles.

Two pioneering pilots

Coincidentally, the airplane we were going to take was a Jetstream, which is manufactured by a company founded by the two pioneering pilots.

With us was Kunda Dixit, a senior journalist with a specialised interest in mountains and aviation. Having him around is like walking with a mountain dictionary.

Inside the waiting hall, we met David Breashears, the director of Everest in IMAX. David has reached the summit of Everest five times.

Slightly star-struck, I asked him about his shooting plans.

October is apparently much better to shoot around Everest. Breashears has done for the season.

The rest of the plane looked like it was all going to be journalists until the group from Scotland arrived.

Charles Douglas-Hamilton does not fly. But he had stories about his grandfather. By all accounts, the flight sounded suicidal.

"There was a downdraft as they approached the mountain and they nearly got sucked into the east ridge of the mountain," Charles told me.

The plane cleared the east ridge by a matter of feet and dropped some 2,000ft in a matter of seconds.

Smooth flight

Luckily, our Yeti Air flight was smooth. The flight taken by Hamilton and McIntire did not leave my mind though.

Hamilton had nearly blacked out after his oxygen mask malfunctioned. Their plane was not heated though their clothes and goggles were "primitive technology", something to do with metal and wires, Charles explained.

Sitting in our pressurised plane drinking coffee and looking out at some of the most magnificent mountains in the world, it was easy to reflect on their difficulties.

We flew right next to Everest, much closer than any mountain flight. The couple of times I had taken the mountain flight before, I had not been able to spot any other mountains.

With Kunda Dixit around, I saw the small scratch on a side of a mountain, which apparently is the airstrip in Lukla.

I could see Gaurishankar and Cho-Oyu. Clouds floated around. And there was Mount Everest standing above everything else.

One and half hour of pure magic floating somewhere above 6,000 metres.

I am glad that the two pioneers took the risks they did, 80 years ago, to make my flight possible.