UDAN: India's hill airports, their unique challenges and the flight route ahead
“It was not an easy decision for us to fly to Pasighat. The first challenge was that the airport is located in the middle of the jungle and it did not have the navigational aides that other airports usually have. But the issue was resolved. Flying to Pasighat, or for that matter to any hill airport, is absolutely safe,” says CS Subbiah, chief executive officer of Alliance Air, a wholly owned subsidiary of Air India, adding how drains near the runway had to be covered and trees and lampposts uprooted before the airline was given the mandatory safety clearance.
No wonder, Pasighat airport was developed out of an airstrip originally built during the India-China war of 1962. The strip was partly paved, partly grassy. It was originally reinforced with perforated steel plates. In 2010, the Indian Air Force upgraded it.
What followed was installation of facilities such as aprons for ground manoeuvring, air traffic control tower, a security wall, a perimeter road et al. By 2016, it was ready for fixed-wing planes. The other Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) at Walong, Ziro, Along and Mechuka in Arunachal Pradesh are also ready, though there’s no flight connectivity to those stations.
For example, Kargil, located at about 200 km north of Srinagar, will soon be connected by commercial fixed-wing aircraft belonging to MEHAIR, a pioneer in seaplanes in India. Then, another destination in Arunachal Pradesh, Tezu, is expected to be connected by Zoom Air in a couple of months.
What will, however, make India’s air travel to the hills more fulfilling is when Sikkim’s Pakyong airport, built after cutting a hill and reinforcing a 74-metre wall at an altitude of 4,641 ft, will be launched, tentatively in July.
about 20-25 airports in the country can be branded as hill airports. Currently, fixed-wing planes regularly fly to several of those destinations — Shimla, Kullu (Bhuntar), Kangra (Gaggal), all in Himachal; Srinagar and Leh in Jammu and Kashmir; Calicut (Kozhikode) in Kerala; Shillong in Meghalaya and Lengpui in Mizoram.