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Bad terrain, lack of sophisticated radar tech — why small planes have poor safety record in Nepal

An aircraft carrying 22 people including 4 Indians has gone missing in Nepal’s Mustang district. The Himalayan country has seen 27 fatal plane crashes in three decades.

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New Delhi: A twin-engine aircraft that had 22 people including four Indians on board went missing in the mountainous district of Mustang in Nepal Sunday morning. 

The Tara Air plane, which took off from the resort town of Pokhara, located 200 km west of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, at around 9.55 am, was on a 15-minute scheduled flight to the mountainous town of Jomsom. Shortly after take-off, the aircraft lost contact with the airport tower, according to a PTI report.

This is not the first small aircraft to have gone missing in Nepal. According to a 2018 AFP report, there have been 27 fatal plane crashes in that country in the past three decades, an average of one almost each year. Most of these involved small aircraft.

Factors like mountainous terrain, lack of sophisticated radar technology that is available in other countries, poor regulation and lack of investment in the aviation industry have led to the large number of plane crashes over the years, according to aviation expects, the report further said. 

According to Nepal home ministry spokesperson Phadindra Mani Pokharel, the ministry has deployed two private helicopters from Mustang and Pokhara to search for the missing aircraft. An army chopper is also being prepared to be deployed for the search.

“The aircraft was seen over the sky of Jomson in Mustang and then diverted to Mt Dhaulagiri, after which it had not come in contact,” ANI quoted Chief District Officer Netra Prasad Sharma as saying.

Mustang, the fifth largest district of the Himalayan country, hosts the pilgrimage of Muktinath Temple. The missing aircraft was flying one of Nepal’s most popular tourist routes for foreign hikers as well as Indian and Nepalese pilgrims.

Also Read: ‘Told to do by someone in cockpit’: Report says China Eastern plane crash was likely intentional

Plane crashes in past few years

US-Bangla Airlines Flight 211 crash, 2018: On 12 March 2018, a 76-seater Bombardier Q400 of US-Bangla Airlines, a privately-owned Bangladeshi airline, was traveling to Kathmandu from Dhaka. It crashed while landing at the Tribhuvan International Airport, killing 51 people on board. 

A commission appointed by the Nepal government to probe the accident had later concluded that the probable cause of the crash was “disorientation and a complete loss of situational awareness on the part of the crew member”.

Tara Air Flight 193, 2016: On 24 February 2016, a small plane carrying 23 people from Pokhara to Jomson went missing eight minutes after take-off. Its wreckage was later found in Myagdi, a mountainous district, with no survivors. The crash was reportedly caused by bad weather. 

Sita Air Flight 601 crash, 2012: On 29 September 2012, a passenger plane of Kathmandu-based airline Sita Air, which was flying from the Nepal capital to the mountain town of Lukla, plunged into a river, killing all 19 people on board. Reportedly, the cause was an error by the pilot.

Agni Air Dornier 228 crash, 2012: On 14 May 2012, a Dornier 228 aircraft of private airline Agni Air, which was flying from Pokhara to Jomsom, crashed near the Jomsom airport. A total of 21 people were on board, of which 15, including both pilots, lost their lives. Six people were rescued from the crash site.

Buddha Air Flight BHA-103 crash, 2011: On 15 September 2011, a Beechcraft aircraft of airline Buddha Air crashed in Lalitpur district in the Kathmandu valley. All 22 people on board, including 10 Indian nationals, were killed. A panel that probed the crash later attributed it to pilot fatigue coupled with poor visibility.

Tara Air Twin Otter crash, 2010: On 15 December 2010, a DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft flying from Lamidanda to Kathmandu crashed shortly after take-off. All 22 people on board, including three crew members, were killed.

Agni Air Flight 101 crash, 2010: On 24 August 2010, Agni Air Flight 101, which was headed to Lukla from Kathmandu, crashed in a hillside near Bastipur minutes after take-off, killing all 14 on board. The probe panel had attributed the mishap to the pilot’s “loss of spatial orientation due to the loss of the attitude indicator in instrument meteorological conditions with visibility of less than 500 meters”.

Challenging terrain, lack of sophisticated radar technology

According to the AFP report quoted earlier, challenging terrain is one of the key reasons for the high number of flight crashes in Nepal, most of which have happened at small domestic airports where pilots attempt to land small planes onto narrow runways.

Nepal’s only international airport is located in a narrow valley 1,338 metres above sea level, because of which planes have a relatively tight space to turn in. The country also lacks sophisticated radar technology, due to which pilots have to navigate by sight, which is also known as a non-precision landing.

According to the report, “Lukla, the gateway to Mount Everest, has been dubbed the world’s most dangerous airport, requiring the pilot to navigate through narrow mountain gorges before landing on a steep runway just 500 metres long with precipitous drops on either side.”

The most pressing issue, according to experts, is the failure of the aviation authority to act on recommendations from past crash investigations.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

Also Read: Sanjay Gandhi, Madhavrao Scindia, YSR — some prominent Indians who died in air crashes


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