One of the world’s newest airports is in a region that previously lacked commercial air service. Pakyong Airport is the first commercial airfield in the Indian state of Sikkim. The runway is 22 miles away from the state capital, Gangtok, but the trip is much shorter than the five-hour drive travelers used to endure to get to the nearest terminal. This new air connection is certainly convenient for citizens of this isolated land, but the airport has been getting attention for another reason.
Sikkim, in the Himalayas in far northern India, has always been remote, and it has always been known for its scenery. That scenery is on full display at Pakyong, which is perched on the side of a valley. Even before the first commercial plane landed, media outlets were calling this one of the world’s most beautiful airports.
An isolated place
The same climate conditions and geography that make Sikkim such a beautiful place also make construction projects challenging. Heavy rains leave the lowlands fertile and green, while the towering mountains provide a stunning contrast. At 4,500 feet above sea level, the airport is right in the middle of this scenery. Builders had to find a place that was protected from winds and stable enough to avoid washouts and landslides.
Before the terminal and runway were built, no construction existed on the site. Such airports are called "greenfield airports" because they're basically built from scratch on an empty field.
How did the engineering team build an airport on a hillside with no previous structures in place? The runway at Pakyong is a mile long. In a place known for heavy rains, the engineers needed to make certain that the ground remained stable for the entire length of the tarmac.
To do this, they had to create an 80-meter (262-foot) reinforcing wall, which is one of the tallest features of its type in the world. The ground was stabilized and shaped using a cut-and-fill geoengineering strategy that is usually part of the construction plan for highways and railways. Builders reinforced the slopes with geo-grid soil reinforcement structures because traditional retaining walls wouldn't have provided enough support.
The firm responsible for the wall, Italy-based Maccaferri, was honored as the ground engineering project of the year at the Ground Engineering Awards in the United Kingdom. The time of the award, 2012, highlights just how long the project has taken and how long people in Sikkim have been waiting for a connection.
A modest beginning
Pakyong Airport in Sikkim is more than 4,000 above sea level. (Photo: Pakyong Airport/Facebook)
The dramatic scenery aside, this airport is a welcome addition to Rhode Island-size Sikkim, which was in independent country until 1975. Initial service will be modest. Low-cost carrier SpiceJet will fly to Pakyong from Kolkata and Guwahati. The terminal at the $67 million airport can only accommodate 100 people, but that usually all it will need. Despite being a feat of engineering, the valley-side airport’s runway is only long enough to accommodate propeller planes. SpiceJet and other commercial carriers will need to use Bombardier Dash 8 or ATR-72 twin turboprop planes. These crafts are favored by cargo companies and militaries, but they're also still used for commercial service. Commercial layouts usually include rooms for 70-80 seats. Plans are in the works for additional connections, including an international flight from Pakyong to Paro, Bhutan.
Pakyong is less than 40 miles from the border with China, so the airport will host military aircraft as well.
Sikkim is hoping that the SpiceJet flights will increase its viability as a tourist destination. The popularity of nearby Nepal and the demand for the limited number of tourism visas to neighboring Bhutan give the state reason to hope that greater accessibility could lead to more interest from tourists. Among other things, Sikkim is betting that the increase in travel will help its fledgling casino industry grow.
There is also hope that the state’s traditional industries — farming, brewing and distilling, watchmaking, and mining — will benefit from the air connection.
All natural in more than one way
Ecotourists will find a lot to love here in northernmost India. First of all, Sikkim is the first state in India to go fully organic. All of the farms in the state use organic growing methods, and all farmers were certified by the national government in 2015. The area has a rich culture with a majority Nepali population and different Sikkimese groups who are closely related culturally and linguistically to Tibetans. The world’s third tallest mountain, Kanchenjunga, is in Sikkim, as are numerous glaciers, alpine lakes, and hot springs that are known throughout India for their purported health benefits. About one third of Sikkim is protected as part of Khangchendzonga National Park. The park became an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
For now, all the attention has been focused on the engineering and scenery of the world’s newest commercial airport. The scenery at Pakyong may rival that of Nepal's Lukla Airport, which sits next to steep valley walls with a 2,000-foot drop at the end of the runway. At Pakyong, however, passengers can enjoy the views without the white-knuckle landing.
It took a lot of engineering to get this modest but much-needed airport off the ground. Pakyong will certainly make it easier for people living in, traveling to, and doing business with the tiny state of Sikkim.