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Disaster averted, unfolding disaster

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

Turkish AirlinesOn Wednesday morning at 7:45 a Turkish Airlines Airbus had a near disaster while landing at Kathmandu Airport. But in blocking the only runway of Nepal’s only international airport, it has unleashed a real and unfolding disaster on the country.

It has been four days since the airport was shut for all international operations, more than 80,000 people have been stranded in Kathmandu and inbound airports. For a country so dependent on tourism and movement of migrant labour, the loss to the economy has been colossal.

On Thursday afternoon, an Indian Air Force C130J Hercules aircraft landed on the northern half of the blocked runway with the recovery kit. Other airlines have loaned spare wheels.

An Indian team that managed to lift the nose of the Airbus 330 jet has not been able to move the heavy widebody to clear the runway. Although the nose of the plane has been raised and rests on a truck bed, the body of the plane is resting on two under-wing airbags and the wheels in the main undercarriages have been replaced. Although the plane was moved by 2m on Saturday morning, the wingtip and tail of the plane are still blocking the runway. Crew is trying to drag the plane into the parallel taxiway and then move it to the east helipad.

Domestic flights have been able to operate, but only with smaller aircraft. Buddha Air’s ATR72, for example, needs more runway length which means it hasn’t been able to fly some trunk routes. Nepal has now been cut off from the rest of the world for four days.

A Turkish technical team is arriving in Kathmandu from Istanbul Saturday morning in a small jet. But it is not clear what it can recommend that hasn’t been tried already. Other more drastic options had been put forward: to dismantle the wing and tail section of the plane to remove the runway obstruction. But even this would have taken days.

Turkish Airbus 330 with its nose on the ground

Turkish Airbus 330 with its nose on the ground off the runway at Tribhuvan International Airport on Wednesday.

No one yet has an estimate of the daily losses to the economy from the airport closure, but the hardships for individual passengers has been staggering. Nepali migrant workers are running out of money and have been sleeping on the floors of airports in Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi and other airports. Tourists coming to Nepal at the start of the spring trekking season have been stuck in Hong Kong, Dubai, or New Delhi. Doha alone has 3,000 stranded Kathmandu-bound passengers. One of Nepal Airlines jets is in Bangkok another in Dubai.

A major international conference on hydropower has been cancelled, trekking trips have been scrubbed, many international marriages postponed.

“Making another approach”

The Turkish 726 Airbus 330-300 aircraft had been flying all night from Istanbul with 224 passengers and 11 crew on Wednesday morning. The airline had just trained its pilots to carry out the RNP-AR (Required Navigation Performance -Authorisation Required) approach in Kathmandu, which is a more precise satellite GPS-based landing compared to the steeper VOR-DME landings. Qatar, Korean and Druk also use this approach, which allows jets to land at under 1,000m visibility, compared to 3,000m earlier.

On 4 March, visibility in the early morning was at below minimum and 726 circled over Simara for an hour before making an approach. It had to pull up at the last moment because the pilot coldn’t see the runway. “Runway not visible at decision height,” the pilot told Kathmandu Air Traffic Control when asked about the reason for the go-around.

The plane carried out a standard missed approach procedure, turning west and climbing to 10,500ft and then 20 miles south of the airport. By this time, the crew must have been calculating how much fuel it still had on board, and needed enough for a diversion to Dhaka or Lucknow. The captain opted for an immediate second try.

Tower reported visibility at 3,000m but added casually: “Visibility at 1,000m on southeast of the runway.” By the time the plane was at 5,600ft and 3 miles out a patch of fog had started moving in over the threshold. For some reason, despite poor visibility the pilots decided to go ahead and land.

Turkish Airlines crash lands

Turkish Airlines crash lands

Passenger accounts speak of an extremely hard landing “20 times more violent than normal”. The plane veered off the runway to the left, the nose gear collapsed and the Airbus 330 came to rest between taxiway D and E. The grass was soggy with previous two days of rain, and probably saved the plane from careening towards the terminal building and exploding along the way.

Photographs and videos of people coming down the evacuation slides that morning show fog so thick that it is hard to see the plane’s tail from even 15m away. Why the pilot decided to go through with the landing, and why the ATC did not warn of the fog patch are questions that will need to be answered.

Pictures from the crash site taken on Friday show that progress has been made in lifting the plane. But at press time on Saturday morning no one could give a reliable estimate of when the runway will be cleared. Hurdles, literally, remain.

Then there are the longer-term issues of expediting alternate airports. Bhairawa and Pokhara expansions are still two and three years from completion. Kathmandu airport, designed for traffic projects 20 years ago, itself needs urgent upgraded.

Even if the airport reopens this weekend, there will be bedlam at a terminal that is chaotic even at normal times. There are plans to allow landings and takeoffs for 24 hours to clear backed-up flights, but runway lights have also been damaged, the tarmac itself needs to be repaired, and two of the baggage belts are unserviceable.

Even if the Turkish Airlines plane is removed and flights resume, the crisis at Kathmandu airport will not be over.

Read also:

No end to TIA crisis

Airport remains closed

Kathmandu airport closed

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23 Responses to “Disaster averted, unfolding disaster”

  1. Airline Guy on Says:

    Great article. As an nepali airline industry insider the incompetence and apathy of the air traffic controllers (ATC) here is unbelievable. The horrific Lukla airport fatal crash in 2008, last year’s Twin Otter fatality on it’s way to Jumla…the air traffic controllers had a very big hand in these crashes. How Lukla airport was kept open by ATC in the 2008 crash is staggering. The actual crash clip is still available on youtube. Visibility was less than 1,000 meters.

    The tragic 9N-ABB Twin Otter fatality of February last year is also another example of ATC apathy or incompetence. The whole of Nepal was blanketed in thick fog and cloud, Twin Otters only operate on Visual Flight Rules (VFR) yet the Pokhara ATC allowed the 9N-ABB crew to take off for Jumla!

    I know it’s not just the ATCs to blame on these accidents but I must say their incompetence or apathy had a big, big role!

    I think managing airports and air traffic control safely, professionally & efficiently is beyond our Nepali govt.’s ability. It does require a high degree of expertise, competence and professionalism they simply do not possess. We should learn from the experience of other more developed countries and privatise our airports via global tender. Surely it can’t get worse that it is right now.

  2. John Martin on Says:

    Thanks Nepal Times for a frank assessment of the Katmandhu airport situation. Another solution to ease the congestion of stranded passengers would be to ask Indian Gov to open up Lucknow airport as a temporary gateway in and out of Nepal. The problem for non SAARC passport holders is the visa issue, so simply ferry passengers as transit passengers to Nepal Gung airport. I cannot think of another answer whilst TIA is blocked.

  3. Trishna Rana on Says:

    our migrant workers stranded @ TIA & other airports seem 2 be hit the worst by the crisis, any news on them?

  4. Devi Boerema on Says:

    just heard the airport is opening at 2.30 my flight was at 3 yet it’s still cancelled .. :(

  5. Airline Guy on Says:

    My heart really goes out to our poor migrant worker brethren. Much suffering they endure.

  6. Navyo Eller on Says:

    Jet another exapmle of the poor standard of the TIA airport, right the ACT did not work, the toilets too… no update on the official TIA webpage, no information on the NTB websites.

    Once I remember it was said (the then) RNAC was of very high standard to fly with and rightly you could be proud. Interestingly after more than 20 years of democracy, the meddling and corruption brought nothing good to TIA.

    In this situation Nepal showed poorest reaction and preparedness to a simple accident and unableness to handle such a situation.

    Accidents can happen, human error too, but how someone can belive a second international airport will function when the first is a total mess from daily operation to such accident. Three days of no any assistance to the passengers, nepalese passengers even worse treathened than foreign, even do tey too pay the flight fare as foreigners.

    It’s just a mess. Shame on the careless authorities!

  7. Khagendra on Says:

    Shudder to think what would happen if a real disaster like a big earthquake struck the overpopulated capital!

  8. Bishu Nepal on Says:

    This also has exposed how vulnerable we are when it comes to handling of disaster be it man made or an act of god.

  9. Anita Gurung on Says:

    I cant believe the airport is still closed. Such disaster should be sorted in a day. The financial cost and disruption to one’s scheduled trips are immensely affected. Also, Nepal aviation reputation

  10. Jannis Papadopoulos on Says:

    As a long-time visiting mountaineer, I can only acknowledge the incompetence of Nepal’s government in every aspect of life in the country. I have a lot of information since I am friends with quite afew Nepalis – from all areas, from all castes and tribes. It makes me sick, what is going in Nepal. I will simply the one example I know best, that is, mountaineering: The ministry’s disdain for foreigners, and its gluttony (bribes and nonsensical deicisons based on “My pocket” only) are really a shame. So many nice people in Nepal, and so many corrupt politicians! ALL mountaineers have experienced the disgusting practices of the Under-Secretary. In this respect, the ekdom ramro country of Nepal is so fuc… that even that old bastard of former king is now complaining! We’ve had civil war, you had civil war. In my country, Europe’s most corrupt, we have started to go against this. When will Nepalese PEOPLE (politicians are also… Nepalese people) do something? It starts in every home, every village, every community. Briging and personal benefits are killing your country like it has almost killed mine. ACT! NOW!

  11. sonudagreat on Says:

    Its funny none of the government has ever done anything they can be proud of.

  12. Philippe Domogala on Says:

    Airline Guy : I doubt you really work for an airline , or if so you have little idea on how the system works. ATC primary task is to prevent collisions between aircraft , ( or vehicles and aircraft on the ground.) not to decide or refuse take off or landing. Decisions to take off or land is that of the Pilot in Command, not the Controller. If the runway is clear of abstacles and from any other aircraft approaching, , the only other thing the Controller has to do is pass the weather , not what he think he sees outside but what the Metorologists and /or instruments in front of him tell him. The 2 can be different. Like in the AF A340 accident in Toronto. Weather is also not a 100% predictable and measurable factor.

    Lack of proper insfartucture is what is the problem in Nepal, not the ATC controllers.

  13. Shayan Rana on Says:

    Crisis at TIA has achieved a dominant position in the aviation industry

  14. Airline Guy on Says:

    Philippe, don’t doubt me. Don’t forget there is no ILS facility in any airport in Nepal. There is such a thing as a controlled airport where the ATC has the authority to close the airport due to weather conditions. They do this all the time at TIA and other controlled airports such as Pokhara, Bhairawa, Biratnagar etc. Even uncontrolled airports where the ATC performs an advisory function such as Simikot is declared closed by the ATC if the visibility is below minima. I’ve been in the Nepali airline industry for two decades now (though I’m not a technical person) – so I do know a little.

    A good example is Lukla, after the 2008 tragic accident it is now a controlled airport where if the visibility falls below 5 km and if the tail wind exceeds 10 knots – the Lukla ATC declares the airport closed.

    I can’t comment on the AF A340 accident in Toronto as I’m unaware of it.

    In Nepal it’s the attitude of the people that’s the problem. Equipment/infrastructure can always be bought/installed. Changing attitudes is way more difficult. Just look at how people drive here!

  15. Quasar on Says:

    “careening towards the terminal building and exploding along the way.”

    This is hyperbole. The rest of the article is sound. But this ruins it for me.

  16. namah on Says:

    ‘look at how people drive here’: Classic example of how NOT to do things elsewhere (which you have learnt in Nepal).

    I agree with Airline Guy on the ATC issues:
    Training, Infrastructure, Equipment, etc. only go so far. Once the guy/girl sits in front of that console, GOD ONLY KNOWS what is going on his/her brain.

  17. suzi on Says:

    I speak from my experience. I was stranded in Doha for 4 days. With minimal daily meal allowance by the airline, I managed by eating 1 meal a day. Luckily I had hotel accommodation, but there were many unfortunate ones who had to wait at the airport. Even after the TIA opened, it wasn’t easy. I had to wait 5 hours to collect my baggage at 2 am in the morning. condition of TIA is pitiful. I hope that we do something to improve the infrastructures, starting from the restrooms and waiting area.

  18. Khagendra on Says:

    It is attitudes that need drastic changing in Nepal. Look at NCELL’s troubles with Rastra Bank in repatriating their dividend! Why allow FDI in the first place then?

  19. namah on Says:

    Nepal reminds of a WWII acronym: SNAFU: Situation Normal, All F****d Up

  20. Airline Guy on Says:

    Found this funny but dangerous clip on recent antics of Sita Air

    Our CAA of Nepal seems to let some airlines get away with murder!

  21. ravi raj kaur on Says:

    Unforgettable trip, it was like being on those big boats with the refugees sold by brokers, without a captain…
    Next time make sure after a crash you get a team of psychologists or did the embassies or consulates cover the feelings of the crashed, yet alive travellers?
    Keep it up

  22. Billy bongo on Says:

    Just read the crap nepaleses response to a frigging aeroplane stuck on the airport runway. Can’ the frigging gurkas pull it?

  23. Tameka Northan on Says:

    I truly love your post. Excellent job!

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