Flight to safety

In the mid-'70s, when it was decided that Shimla, as a popular holiday destination, should have an airport, finding a suitable patch of flat land proved difficult. Finally, Jubberhatti, a hill 22 km from town, was flattened and a table-top airport, almost similar to Mangalore, where a major aircrash left the country shaken, was built.

Three decades after the Shimla airport was built at an elevation of 5,065 ft, the safety aspect is getting attention, with Himachal keen on expanding the existing 3,800-ft airstrip to enable bigger planes to land and for better and reliable air-connectivity to the state.

Currently, only one flight of Kingfisher Airlines lands at the airport carrying 48 passengers, but on its return journey it cannot carry more than 28 passengers, as per safety norms. Unless the airstrip is expanded by at least another 500 ft, it is not possible for big aircraft to land.

Besides, there are practical difficulties in the operation and maintenance of the airport. The weather poses a problem during landing, not just in the winter months, but also in the monsoon and even in summer. "We are equipped with an aviation meteorological observatory for ensuring safety, but the weather can turn bad anytime and visibility can be reduced to less than 5,000 metres," says an Airports Authority of India (AAI) official. Manmohan Singh, Director, Meteorological Centre, Shimla, says,"The MET observatory at Shimla airport provides updates about wind direction, wind speed, visibility, air pressure, cloud density, type of clouds, rain, etc. — two dozen parameters which facilitate safe landing and take-off. The information is updated every half hour and pilots can also ask for special met reports if required mid-air."

Because of the low traffic, the Airport's Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower is open from 8.05 a.m. to 12.05 p.m, unless there are VVIP or private chartered flights landing at the airport. Till now, the Shimla airport hasn't seen a tragedy, although there have been a few aircrashes in the state, including one in 1994 in which the entire family of Punjab Governor Surinder Nath perished in the Parnsa valley in Mandi district.

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