Nepali Times
The return of the Pilatus Porter

After a 40-hour ferry flight from Switzerland on Wednesday, with Capt Michael Alb at the controls.
Fifty years after the first Pilatus Porter made the long journey from Switzerland to Nepal, the rugged single-engine aircraft is staging a come back in the Himalaya.

By a happy coincidence, that first aircraft was nicknamed 'Yeti', and it is Yeti Airlines that has just taken delivery of two brand new latest model Pilatus Porters to re-open roadless areas of the country.

The single-engine aircraft are ideal for Nepal's mountains because they can land and takeoff on dirt runways not more than 350m long.

"The Pilatus Porter has a proven record of performance for flying to remote areas of Nepal, it has shown it can do the job anytime and almost anywhere," says Yeti's Ang Tshiring Sherpa, "it fits nicely between a helicopter and a Twin Otter and we want to use it to open up the far west."

The first 'Yeti' set the world record for the highest-ever landing by a fixed wing aircraft at 5,700m when it was used by the Austrian- Swiss Dhaulagiri expedition in 1960 to ferry supplies from Pokhara to base camp. That record still stands, and the 'Yeti' is also still there because on its 17th flight it crashed while trying to takeoff in high wind.

The first Pilatus to fly in Nepal was also nicknamed 'Yeti' and seen at Pokhara airport in 1960, and later crashed on Dhaulagiri.
Emil Wick, who was one of the pilots of the original 'Yeti' when it crashed on Dhaulagiri, stayed on in Nepal to train Pilatus pilots for Royal Nepal Airlines. He died in 2000, leaving a list of legendary flying feats like landing downhill in Lukla, flying at 16,000ft in the unpressurised PC-6 to climb over clouds, and landing transverse to the runway at Kathmandu airport in a 40 knot crosswind.

Hardy Fuerer, another Swiss pilot who flew the blue-tailed Pilatus for the UN in the 1970s and 80s, was involved in the construction of nearly 40 short-takeoff and landing (STOL) fields. Some, like Phaplu, Jomsom, Jumla, Rara and Jufal have been upgraded, while others like Langtang and Dhorpatan are not used anymore.

Indeed, it was impressive to see just how little of the runway Yeti's second Pilatus Porter used at the end of its 40-hour ferry flight to Kathmandu from Luzern on Wednesday. "The beauty of this plane is that Pilatus hasn't changed its basic design in 50 years," said Michael Alb at Kathandu airport after a seven-hour last leg of the flight from Ahmedabad.

Yeti Airlines, which flies to more destinations than any other airline in Nepal, bought the two Pilatus Porter PC-6s to extend its reach to airfields which can't take Twin Otters.

"We are hoping to extend this service to tourists who don't have time for a long trek, and want to go up to Syangboche for brunch and be back by afternoon," says Yet Airlines' Pradeep Shah.

NEW ARRIVAL: The second of Yeti Airlines' brand new Pilatus Porter lands at Kathmandu airport.
At $950 per hour, the Pilatus is half the cost of renting an Ecuriel helicopter and will hiring it out at short notice as an air ambulance, specialised sight-seeing flights and cargo charters.

In the past 50 years, Pilatus Porters have been flown by the United Nations, the Swiss development agency and Royal Nepal Airlines. In those years, PC-6 have done just about eerything: they have dropped live goats by parachute for mountaineering expeditions, carried text books and vaccines to remote villages in western Nepal, ferried grain to Humla during the 1982 food crisis, flown orange saplings for orchards in Jumla and taken international celebrities for new year parties at Syangboche.

For many, the familiar drone of the Pilatus Porter's turboprop engine has brought back memories of a past that is now a part of the future of Nepal's aviation.

See also: 'Emil Wick's adventures with the Pilatus Porter', Nepali Times, #9
'Looking for the Yeti', Nepali Times #9
'Expedition locates crash below Dhaulagiri', Nepali Times #13
'Flying into the past with Hardy Fuerer', Nepali Times #24

For video of Yeti Airlines Pilatus ferry flight:

Extreme mountain flight

Ron Faux of The Times of London flew with legendary Pilatus Porter pilot, Emil Wick, to right below Mt Everest in 1978, and writes about his experience:

During the 1978 Austrian expedition to Everest, on which Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler planned an oxygen free attempt on the mountain, I flew with them in the Pilatus Porter with Emil Wick (pictured) from Syangboche airstrip.

Wick strapped us into the aircraft, gave everyone an oxygen mask and placed a cushion on his seat. He was of short stature and without elevation from a cushion, what lay beyond the instrument panel was a mystery to him. I remember his very positive, cheerful and enormously self-confident manner. He was the only pilot the Nepalis would allow to fly "into the hole" as he called the Western Cwm.

We first flew towards Nuptse and skirting the northern edge of the ridge, tracked the edge of the Cwm towards Lhotse, swinging left about level with the South Col. The air was completely still but Wick announced that we were unable to fly beyond the South Col for fear of a Chinese missile and that reaching summit level was not possible on that particular day because the pressure was too low and the air insufficiently dense.

The single turbo-prop engine did not have the grunt to go higher that day. Instead we flew to 400m of the south-west face of Everest and we had a close-up view of the route that Bonington and Co had climbed three years previously.

Wick then flew the aircraft above the Lhotse face and said: "OK, we dive the bastard" and yanked the controls into a spiral dive. He had to use maximum input on the controls to make the Porter do anything. We then swooped down the Lhotse face over the heads of two Austrians climbing towards the South Col. They could not have been pleased after spending two months manoeuvring themselves into a position of Biblical loneliness and danger when out of the sky plunges an aircraft whose wheels almost took their hats off. If the noise and shock wave alone did not terrify them the subsequent risk of avalanche on a 50 degree snow and ice slope would.

Down the Cwm we plunged over the lip of the Khumbu Icefall and the startled upturned faces at base camp. Whilst Wick was clearly master of his element and enjoying every second, his passengers were too stunned to speak. We flew down the valley to Syangboche, renowned for its turbulence, but the air remained perfectly smooth.

Interesting to note that Reinhold Messner insisted that he make the flight without wearing an oxygen mask. He was well acclimatised and manifestly had lungs that reached his knees but even so he turned a curious shade of blue, his eyes crossed and lost some of their focus but, according to him, he remained fully conscious. As history records, he and Habeler did reach the top, unmasked.

Emil Wick retired from his job as a trainer for Royal Nepal Airlines in Nepal in 1986 aged 60. In 1989 he co-wrote a scientific meteorological paper entitled 'Air motions in the vicinity of Mount Everest as deduced from Pilatus Porter flights,' which gives a fascinating insight into his vast experience of flying in the Everest region. Emil Wick died on September 27, 2000 aged 74 in Geneva, Switzerland.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)