Challenging World Airports: Leh, India


DALLAS – With a flight path between the Himalayan mountains, the approach to Leh Airport (IXL) is one of the most breathtaking and scenic in the world. IXL is situated in the Indian state of Ladakh, which is a strategic airbase for India and is also used for commercial operations.

Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport, aka Leh Airport, is named after the respected Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, whose 19th incarnation was considered a significant Indian and Ladakhi statesman.

With a runway length of approximately 9,000ft (2,700m), IXL sits at a height of 3,256m (10,700ft) above Mean sea level, making it one of the airports situated at the highest altitude in the world. But with these mountains and elevation comes an extra risk involved at landing.

Commercial Operations

All take-offs and landings are made within a narrow window in the mornings due to the surrounding terrain. The mountains produce fierce afternoon winds along with mountain waves which are a serious hazard to flights.

Air India (AI), GoFirst (G8), Spicejet (SG), Vistara (UK), and the latest addition Indigo (6E) conduct frequent daily operations although nearly all flights fly to New Delhi (DEL) only. Recently, SpiceExpress has started cargo operation, too.

Situated close to the tensed border between India and Pakistan, Security at the airport is in full swing. At the airport, even hand baggage is not permitted.

According to a review of the airport, the common official viewpoint is that they do not want travelers to bring hand luggage to/from these airports due to added security risks (border areas); aside from delicate devices like cameras, laptops, mobile phones, and a few other things.

As for any planespotting, the airport has a wake turbulence category limitation and hence you tend to see the A320 family and the Boeing 737 aircraft only – No widebodies and no turboprops.

However, it’s quite usual to spot the C-17 and Il-76/78 operated by the Indian Airforce. Although these aircraft belong to the ‘Heavy’ category they are specifically built to operate in such conditions.

Approach to IXL. Chart: Leh Airport Guide.

The Approach

With Runway 07 only for Approach and Runway 25 for Departure, makes Leh a unidirectional runway (where take-off and landing happen in the same direction). The approach starts at LELAX > LH01 > LH02 > LLH > LH03 > LH04 > LH05 > LH06.

Once overhead the aerodrome (LH03), the aircraft can join left downwind of RW 07 and follow a usual visual circuit to land.

It is more like a circle-to-land procedure that is done visually with terrain clearance, and specially certified crew are allowed to operate into Leh.

Some Facts

  • Full thrust/TOGA must be used for all departures from Leh with high thrust setting to taxi as well due to the density altitude.
  • When conditions are below ISA, the runway temperature can fall to less than -5 degrees C, So the pressure altimeter will over-read.
  • Every pilot operating in and out of this airfield has to go through vigorous training exercises that require them to operate with only one of two engines operational.

Featured image: Landing at Leh Airport in Ladakh India. Screenshot: M1k3Cr41g via YouTube


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