It was just what Fishtail Air's Captain Sabin Basnyat, 34, wanted to do for a living â€" rescue mountaineers from the Himalaya â€" but he never returned from one such mission to Ama Dablam on the morning of 7 November. In the process of rescuing Japanese mountaineers trapped at an altitude of 20,500 feet, the helicopter commandeered by Capt. Basnyat along with technician Purna Awale was buffeted by a sudden gust of wind and careered straight into the mountain. Though the Japanese mountaineers were rescued the next day by another Fishtail Air helicopter piloted by Captains Ashish Sherchan and Siddhartha Gurung, there was nothing they could do for their colleagues.
Four years ago, another rescue mission in Lukla ended in tragedy when a Dynasty Air helicopter crashed and killed Capt. Pembagelu Sherpa. Eleven years ago, Capt. Suraj Shumsher Rana lost his life while returning from a successful rescue in Lukla on an Asian Air helicopter. And two years ago, Capt. Sabin Basnyat narrowly escaped death en route to pick up tourists in the Annapurnas.
This rollcall of disaster compels us to think of the human costs of such rescue missions from the perspective of those who risk their lives to save those of others. It is also more of an indication of the extreme risks involved in high-altitude rescue missions than the ability of the pilots involved. While helicopter flights above 6,000 feet qualify as 'high-altitude' abroad, in Nepal even trainee pilots have to fly at altitudes of 16,000 to 17,000 feet above sea level. Capt.
Basnyat had over 6,000 hours of flying experience and like many of the other Nepali pilots in private and army service, was considered an 'A' class international level helicopter pilot. There are 18 helicopters in service for rescue missions in Nepal, and close to three dozen highly qualified pilots operating them. Around 1,500 rescues of mountaineers, trekkers and tourists are completed every year.
While Nepali pilots are well aware of the risks involved, there's no doubt they are driven by a humanitarian impulse that supersedes personal concerns. Capt. Gurung says, "There is a desire to come back with those injured, ill or stranded in the mountains no matter what. The satisfaction of being able to do so makes one forget the risks." This is in evidence every day at the Fishtail Air office in Tinkune, Kathmandu. Upon receiving news of a sick tourist in the Everest region from operations manager Pradip Gautam, Capt. Sherchan prepares hurriedly to get to the airport. On his way out he explains, "We fly off to rescue sites within 15 minutes of being informed."