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Why Don’t Planes Fly Over the Himalayas?

Airplanes have come a long way in the last century of aviation. It’s hard to imagine that not so long ago, the Atlantic Ocean or the North American continent was an insurmountable obstacle, and now plane routes fly all around the globe without a second thought. However, there are still some areas of the planet that planes avoid, such as the Himalayas.

While some planes do fly in this region, most planes don’t fly over the Himalayas because the mountains are simply too high. Flying over the tallest mountains in the Himalayas, including Mount Everest, requires reaching altitudes that are unsafe for planes and the humans inside them.

Here are the reasons why planes don’t fly over the Himalayas.

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Why Don’t Planes Fly Over the Himalayas?

The Himalayas are the tallest mountain range in the world. Nine out of the ten tallest mountains in the world are located in this range. The tallest, Mount Everest, stands 29,032 feet tall, and many others are 24,000 feet tall or more.

Most planes fly at an altitude of 33,000 to 42,000 feet when they reach cruising level, somewhere in the lower stratosphere. Normally, this puts the plane well in a safety zone that is far above the ground and even above most turbulence patterns. However, when flying over the Himalayas, the plane would have to reach a much higher altitude to safely clear the mountains and avoid weather and turbulence patterns.

Many commercial planes, particularly larger jetliners, are simply not capable of flying at the altitudes necessary to safely clear the Himalayas. Even planes that are physically capable of flying at high altitudes avoid doing so because climbing that high has its risks. For example, the higher you go in the atmosphere, the colder the outside temperature, and the more likely it is that the fuel in the jet will freeze.

Is It Safe to Fly Over the Himalayas?

Even if planes can physically clear the altitude required to fly over the Himalayas, most commercial airlines avoid this route because it is not worth the potential risk to passengers.

When flying high into the stratosphere to clear the Himalayas, planes encounter low oxygen levels outside. That means that it is more common for the cabin to lose air pressure and oxygen. Although modern plane cabins are equipped with oxygen masks, the oxygen supply is limited, and the pilot has only a few minutes to lower the plane to 10,000 feet so passengers can safely breathe. When flying over a mountain range where the land is at a height of 20,000 feet and more, going down to 10,000 feet is impossible.

Bhutan airline Druk Air A319 in Paro airport, Bhutan
Yay Bhutan airline Druk Air A319 in Paro airport, Bhutan

Even if the cabin doesn’t depressurize, flying in areas with low oxygen levels comes with its own set of problems. Low oxygen in the air means that turbulence and high winds are more prevalent than in other parts of the world. In fact, clear air turbulence, which the FAA lists as the number one cause of injuries in-flight because it is nearly impossible to detect on radar, occurs most often over high mountain ranges. These patches of turbulence are very common over the Himalayas.

Most commercial airliners avoid flying over the Himalayas because common flying dangers are more prevalent in this region and in case an emergency does happen, pilots are very limited in what they can do. The Himalayas have very few flat surfaces where pilots can perform an emergency landing. Sometimes, even if an air route is possible, it is best to avoid it for passenger safety.

Does That Mean No Planes Fly Over the Himalayas?

Although most airlines try to avoid flying over the Himalayas when possible, that doesn’t mean there are no flights at all. After all, there are several cities that are completely surrounded by the Himalayas, such as Kathmandu and Lhasa, and they have airports. It just means that most flights over the Himalayas are regional flights serving the area as opposed to international long-haul flights cutting over the mountain range.

lukla airport in nepal
Yay Lukla airport in Nepal

Military and surveillance planes are also common over the Himalayas. Large parts of the mountain range mark the border between India and China, two countries that have engaged in border skirmishes in the recent past. Both regularly conduct military exercises and surveillance over the Himalayas (That’s actually another reason why commercial airlines avoid the region—they don’t want to get caught in a skirmish.).

Are There Supernatural Reasons Why Planes Avoid the Himalayas?

Some people claim that planes can’t fly over the Himalayas because of supernatural causes, such as special force fields or creatures such as the Yeti. However, these claims are laughably false.

Planes can fly over the mountain range, but it just isn’t practical or safe to do so in most cases, so airlines avoid the region.

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