Making monsoon flying safer in Nepal

Airline shows it is possible to ensure safety by strictly adhering to flight protocols

There has been a revision of safety protocols for flying in the monsoon in Nepal after the latest crash of a helicopter near Mt Everest on 11 July.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) grounded all helicopter flights after the crash that killed five Mexican passengers and the Nepali pilot, but some rescue flights have resumed during the lean tourist season.

While CAAN is trying to more strictly implement its rule about only flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) in flights to and from airfields in the mountains without navigational aids, private airlines have been taking their own measures.

Data scraped by Nepali Times from multiple sources show that more than 90% of fatalities in crashes in the past 60 years in Nepal have happened when planes fly into mountains hidden by clouds.

And nearly all of what are technically known as Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) incidents have occurred in the three monsoon months of July, August and September – and most of them have happened on approach or after takeoff.

Interestingly, almost all of these accidents have happened in flights on mountain routes, very few have been due to mechanical problems and none have occurred in the Tarai in the past six decades.

This is why CAAN and private operators have been trying to strictly enforce VFR protocols that absolutely forbids pilots from flying into clouds even briefly while flying in mountain airfields not equipped with navaids.

“High terrain and unpredictable mountain weather make flying in the Himalaya the most challenging in the world,” admits Manoj KC, a 22-year veteran of Buddha Air with more than 17,000 flight hours. “However, the risk can be minimised by strictly following rules and adhering to protocols.”

Manjo KC

Buddha Air is Nepal’s largest domestic airline with 16 ATR-72 and -42 aircraft, and besides international and CAAN safety regulations it also has in place its own extra steps to ensure that flight crew are prepared for monsoon flying conditions.

Nepal’s pre-monsoon in April-May-June has rapidly developing buildups with strong updrafts, thunderstorms, hail and high winds. In the monsoon months of July-August-September clouds and heavy rain can reduce visibility as well as make runways slippery or water-logged. Winter brings fog at airports in the Tarai and in mountain valleys as well as ice and snow in the higher reaches.

However, it is in the monsoon that more attention is needed. Buddha Air, for instance, has a monsoon briefing for flight crew before the start of the rainy season with safety reminders and long term forecasts.

Buddha air also has a flight dispatch centre at the domestic airport where a Japanese software gives critical go, no-go information about various airports in real time.

“The system helps us not just track our fleet, but also up to date weather conditions at airports,” explains Buddha Air’s flight dispatcher Umesh Khadka.

CAAN also inspects aircraft tyres more frequently during the monsoon so their treads are intact to prevent skidding on wet runways, and wipers are also a part of the Minimum Equipment List (MEL).

Buddha Air designs its own procedures when starting operations to new airports like Surkhet and Tumlingtar, taking into account all contingencies, including poor visibility during the monsoon. For Tumlingtar, for example, its engineers did a drone survey of the runway, plotted obstruction and terrain before verifying performance of ATR-72s on simulators even before the first proving flight.

“We only started flying to Tumlingtar after all the procedure turns and decision points were double checked,” explains Manoj KC who flies ATR-72s.  Only in the past month, three Tumlingtar flights have diverted back to Kathmandu because of sub-optimal visibility.

Buddha Air is now lobbying to have new satellite based Area Navigation (RNAV) for more precise navigation in Surkhet and Tumlingtar, as well as Pokhara which has an Instrument Landing System (ILS).

CAAN switched its radar coverage to Bhatte Danda, which covers more of the country but the new system does not plot weather systems like the older radar. This means air traffic controllers now cannot give planes waiting to take off more precise information about the location of storm cells. Pilots have to rely on the plane’s own radar which can track weather only after takeoff.

In some cases, airline crew are pressured by passengers to fly because they are in a hurry to reach their destinations. This is why Buddha Air has installed at its departure terminals a Flightradar 24 map showing the live position of its flights, as well as webcam images of destination airports. The carrier says this has helped passengers better understand why there can be delays or even cancellations due to bad weather.

Because many of the mishaps in the past have also happened due to pilots not knowing what en route weather is like, CAAN has installed live webcams on critical high passes like Ghorepani on the Pokhara-Jomsom route, and Lamjura on the Lukla-Kathmandu route. More are planned.

Says Buddha’s Manoj KC: “We strictly follow safety procedures so that even airline management, government officials or passengers cannot pressure us to fly when weather parameters enroute or at departure and destination airports are no-go.” 

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