Natasha Shrestha married her doctor husband when both were studying in the former Soviet Union. The couple returned to Nepal and Natasha started working at the Bureau of Statistics in the computer department.
After helping out with a Russian ultralight expedition, Natasha decided to buy one of the aircraft to use it for sightseeing flights. Buying the plane was the easy part, it took two years of lobbying to get the necessary permits from the Ministry of Tourism. In 1997, Avia Club Nepal was established in Pokhara.
Since then, the company has flown 21,000 tourists on sightseeing flights of the Annapurnas and Machapuchre from its base at Pokhara airport. Avia Club Nepal has become the pioneer in air sports activities and has put Nepal on the international adventure tourism map.
"It's not enough to get tourists to Nepal," says Praveen Gauchan of Avia Club Nepal, "it is important that once here they have something to do." Indeed, flying and Nepal's Himalayan scenery go hand-in-hand, and the mountains provide a whole new dimension from up in the air as thousands of tourists in Nepal have found.
Avia Club Nepal started out with a couple of delta-wing ultralights with open cockpits ideally suited for aerial photography. Today, the fleet has grown to four ultralights, one fixed wing light aircraft, six paragliders and four motorised paragliders.
The company offers special ultralight flights over Pokhara Valley and flights up the Seti and Mardi to the glaciers below Annapurna. It also conducts paragliding tandem jumps and special aviation services like banner towing, flower showering, aerial filming, mountain search and rescue as well as scientific research. The club also conducts Avia Club Nepal Flight Training School.
Avia now wants to try amphibian ultralight operations from Begnas Lake, offer cross country flights to Chitwan and para-trekking which combines paragliding with Himalayan hikes.
Avia Club Nepal's pilots include Capt Alexander Maximov, a Russian pilot with 4,000 hours of flying experience, and Nepal's first licensed ultralight pilot, Stephen Shrestha.
Says Natasha: "You really have to believe in what you are doing, you have to keep trying to overcome obstacles that come along."
"I just kept going"
Natasha Shrestha founded Avia Club Nepal in 1997. In a talk with Nepali Times on its 15th anniversary, she recounts her long struggle to make the business work.
Natasha Shrestha: My husband is a Nepali and I've come to love Nepal as my own country. As citizens we must all ask ourselves what we have done for Nepal. The satisfaction you get from working for your country is immeasurable.
And how come you chose to start an ultra light club in Pokhara?
I am a computer engineer by profession, but had to give up my job because of an eye problem. I then started working with Russian tourists. In 1995 a Russian expedition on Everest brought an ultralight with them. I was curious and learnt about the aircraft. I instantly saw the opportunity for it in Nepal's tourism industry.
With all the bureaucracy, it must have been really difficult to get the initial permission.
Yes, the bureaucracy can kill your enthusiasm. But you must be very patient and persistent. My strong desire and passion kept me going and I eventually broke the bureaucratic hurdles.
What kept you going when anyone else in your place would have given up?
I believed that if I succeeded in starting an ultralight company, it would begin a new era in aviation sports tourism in Nepal. I was deeply motivated because I felt I was making a contribution to the country and the people. Then during the most difficult times, when anyone else would have given up, I kept going because I had burned all the bridges of retrieve. I had invested everything I had, all of my property and my youth, so it was do or die situation. So I just kept going on.
Your company has placed Nepal on the map as an adventure destination, what are your future plans?
I plan to develop air sports activities, other than ultralight and paragliding. This will put Nepal even more strongly in the international aviation sports map. Ultimately it will help build Brand Nepal.
What for you was the most fulfilling part of running Avia Club Nepal?
The most fulfilling part is to see the happy eyes and excited faces of our passengers after a flight, and there have been 21,000 of them from 58 countries in the past 15 years. It is fantastic hearing their enthusiasm and admiration of seeing Nepal's beauty from the air.