Crash Course


It has been two weeks since the latest avoidable tragedy in the skies above Nepal. Twenty-two people perished when a Twin Otter on a flight from Pokhara to Jomsom hit the side of a mountain on 29 May.

This was the 64th major air crash in Nepal in the past 60 years, in which more than 818 people have been killed. Some 92% of them died when their plane flew into mountains during bad weather. The tally does not include smaller accidents.

Like all statistics, these numbers are numbing. When disasters become frequent, compassion fatigue sets in, and people tune out. But each crash is an enormous tragedy for scores of families and friends of passengers and crew. The country has also lost prominent professionals in every field. Nepal’s ambassador to India was among 10 who died in a crash in 1962, and a rescue plane that went to the site also met with disaster, killing an eminent physician. Some of the country’s top conservationists were killed in the helicopter crash in Ghunsa in 2006. The 2018 crash of a Bangladeshi plane at Kathmandu airport cost the life of Nepal’s foremost brain surgeon, and that of 10 promising students who had just graduated from medical school.

There is an unfair asymmetry in media reports of air and highway accidents. Plane crashes get much more media attention than road traffic accidents, even though 3,000 people are killed on highways every year in Nepal — more than tuberculosis, malaria and HIV combined. (One result of the pandemic was that the death toll on Nepal's roads was much lower in 2020 because of lockdowns.)

Read also: Highways of death, Sunir Pandey

The reason for this disproportionate focus on aviation is that people in upper income brackets are involved, and the impact of a poor air safety record on tourism. For an industry that has such important bearing on the economy, one would have thought the government and private operators would have tried harder to improve air safety standards.

Maybe it is not so surprising when there is such a glaring lack of political will to clean up extortion and corruption in the migration sector -- even more important for the country's economy because of remittances from Nepalis working overseas.

An investigation committee is formed after every plane crash. A report is quietly released a few months later recommending safety measures. It goes on a shelf, its warnings and suggestions gather dust. The committees overlap, and sometimes have the same members.

Analysis of data from the past air crash investigations in Nepal show that most of the accidents have taken place in poor weather when perfectly airworthy planes slam into mountains. Only a few of these crashes have been due to mechanical failure. There were also no serious accidents with fatalities in the last 60 years on trunk routes between the capital and Tarai cities.

We know what the problem is (planes flying into clouds that hide mountains) and the solution (regulatory scrutiny, enforcement of Visual Flight Rules (VFR), crew training, better forecasting for en route weather).

So it is shocking, but not surprising, that these deadly disasters keep happening.

Read also: Why missing planes are so difficult to find in Nepal, Nepali Times

Two nearly-identical crashes of the same type of aircraft belonging to the same airline on the same route in similar weather, and almost at the same location prove that flight deck instrumentation and age of aircraft are not major factors.

A Tara Air Twin Otter hit a mountain above Dana in February 2016 while flying from Pokhara to Jomsom, killing all 23 on board. Six years later on 29 May 2022, another Tara Twin Otter crashed up the valley, killing 22.

The plane in 2016 was a brand new upgraded Viking Air version of the Twin Otter that showed virtual terrain to pilots on the glass cockpit. The Twin Otter in this year’s crash was 43-year-old with an analog flight deck. Both planes were flown by captains who had 30 years of experience flying Twin Otters in Nepal.

Yet both hit mountains in cloud. There is something else at play here. A culture of laxity, negligence and fatalism are underlying causes. Poor oversight by regulatory agencies and airline companies also play a part.

Making real-time en route weather available to pilots would help, together with stricter compliance to VFR.

Ultimately, Nepal needs more accountable leaders and better governance for this carnage in our skies to stop.

Read more: A safer sky,Vijay Lama