A large portion of the valley in Gilgit-Baltistan has received considerable snowfall of late. Apart from the mountains, the snow has also blanketed towns, disrupting routine life. The region’s Skardu valley is no exception. The snowfall here has forced residents to suspend outdoor activities.
The snow, besides bringing down mercury levels below freezing point, at times threatens flight operations between Islamabad and Skardu. The runway has been covered with six to 10 inches of snow since the last week of December. The landing of aircraft depends upon the removal of ice and snow from the 14,000-foot runway. But that isn’t an easy task either, given that mercury has already touched -12 degrees centigrade.
The Skardu-based Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) staff, however, has experience of clearing the runway many a time. With equipment and machinery, they would clear the path for planes before dawn, ensuring the safe landing of aircraft. The first heavy snowfall in the valley was recorded on December 26. About 10 inches of snow whitened the town and its runway. The CAA staff, after putting in six-hour-long effort, just managed to clear the runway barely an hour before landing. Two days later, another spell of snowfall once again blanketed the runway, but the staff cleared the snow after five-hour-long effort.
This practice goes on almost every day and each time there is snowfall, the staff goes out in the freezing cold and starts clearing the snow using machinery and equipment.
At 7,500 feet, the Skardu runway in Gilgit-Baltistan is the second-largest in the country. PIA’s ATR aircraft flies there, as does the Airbus 320 three times a week, to facilitate passengers who otherwise have to undergo a 25-hour arduous journey through the Karakoram Highway. The journey becomes even more painful in freezing winters as hotels on the over 800-kilometer-long highway lack basic facilities. Under such circumstances, the continuation of flights is a blessing for the passengers. This is acknowledged by passengers every time as they step safely out of the aircraft at the Skardu airport. A few days ago, an ATR aircraft landed at the airport, amidst snowfall, giving passengers a moment to celebrate. This was unprecedented in Gilgit-Baltistan. Previously, the snowfall has led to the cancellation of flights for weeks, adding to passengers’ woes.
The CAA staff deserve appreciation here. It’s thanks to their efforts that uninterrupted service has continued at the airport. They could have chosen to sit back and blame nature, but instead decided to act.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2016.