Keeps happening

The rule for pilots in Nepal must be: do not fly into clouds, they have rocks in them.

Air disasters in Nepal have become so commonplace they only make fleeting headlines.  

The Yeti Airlines ATR-72 crash on 15 January was the deadliest domestic air disaster in Nepal. Three helicopters have gone down since then, and the Manang Air tragedy on 11 July was the fourth.

The reasons are the same: a reckless disregard for safety, regulators not enforcing protocols, and lack of navigation aids. 

Read also: How to make Nepal's skies safer, Kunda Dixit

Even at the best of times, Nepal’s terrain and weather make flying risky. But neglect, apathy and carelessness add to the danger. 

Five members of a Mexican family on a sightseeing trip and their Nepali pilot were killed in Solu Khumbu on Tuesday. They had taken off from Surke, an alternative to Lukla in bad weather. Visibility was already marginal in the narrow Dudh Kosi gorge.

The chopper would have had to climb to 4,200m to clear Lamjura Pass which was covered in cloud. Nepal’s civil aviation regulations require pilots on mountain routes to always be on Visual Flight Rules (VFR). 

A commission of inquiry has been formed, as happens after every crash. But we can already say that the helicopter was not flying VFR

The helicopter that crashed was one of two bought brand new by Manang Air, it is designed for high altitude rescues. One of the same model landed on the summit of Mt Everest in 2005.

Read also: Crash course, Kunda Dixit

Helicopters are inherently more tricky to fly because of vertical takeoff and landing in built-up areas or rugged terrain, and because they cannot glide in case of engine malfunction. The AS350 Ecureuil family of choppers has had 1,244 incidents since it went into operation in 1991, and there have been fatalities in many of them.

In Nepal alone, there have been at least 18 chopper crashes killing 98 people in the past 60 years (map). About half of them have been due to CFIT (Controlled Flight into Terrain) in which a helicopter impacts high terrain in poor visibility. 

In fact, nearly all of the 73 air crashes in Nepal (of fixed wing and helicopters) in the past 70 years in which nearly 1,000 people have been killed, have been classified as CFIT. Most have occurred in the monsoon, or in seasons when mountains en route or on approach are covered by clouds.

The deadliest helicopter crash in Nepal was also a CFIT. Twenty-four passengers, including renowned conservationists were killed in 2006 when a MI17 flew into a mountain above Ghunsa in the monsoon. Nepal Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari and aviation entrepreneur Ang Tshiring Sherpa were among six killed in Taplejung in 2019 when their helicopter flew into a mountainside in a blizzard.

In the past 8 years alone, there have been seven chopper crashes, including three non-fatal ones on hospital helipads in Kathmandu. 

Crashes like the one this week where foreigners are involved garner international headlines. It further damages Nepal's reputation and impacts on tourism, and therefore the economy.

Nepal is already on the European Union's safety list because of repeated crashes in the past in which tourists have been killed. The EU has insisted that the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) be unbundled with separate entities for regulatory and operational functions. 

However, we are not sure that will necessarily make flying safer since the causes have more to do with lackadaisical mindsets and a fatalistic culture. Not much will change if the bureaucrats are the same.   

VFR protocols by air traffic control and airlines should be enforced. Weather webcams must be installed along dangerous sections like Lamjura and the Kali Gandaki Valley near Jomsom. Pilots should ignore company or passenger pressure to fly in bad weather.

Cockpit hierarchy and complacency on the part of experienced pilots flying frequented routes are also factors. There is a tendency to underestimate enroute weather conditions, and over-reliance on terrain visualisation maps in aircraft with glass cockpits. 

Given that we know why most crashes happen in Nepal, they should not happen. The important rule for pilots in Nepal must be: do not fly into clouds, they have rocks in them.

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