Nepal's aviation sector has grown by leaps and bounds in the past two decades, and one of the most dramatic progress has been in the spread of helicopter services.
In a country of high mountains and lack of roads, their vertical takeoff and landing capability make helicopters ideally suited for Nepal's terrain. More recently, helicopters have turned from a luxury to a necessity. Hiring a chopper is no longer just for high-class tourists and VIPs anymore.
There are five chopper companies with 13 helicopters in Nepal today, and this is expected to grow as tourism booms. Sightseeing, cargo flights, transportation for hydropower projects, rescues and even pilgrimages are now possible with competition bringing down prices.
Today, Nepal's mountains and valleys are alive with the sound of Russian-built MI-17s, Japanese BK-117s, and the French Ecureuil AS350s. Of these, the MI-17 has been nicknamed the "flying truck" because it can carry four tons of cargo to remote areas.
As a helicopter pilot specialising in rescue, no matter how often I fly I am still amazed by Nepal's scenery. There is truthfully no other place like this in the world. The vertical topography with its deep gorges, lofty mountains and tricky weather make Nepal a challenging place to fly. Added to the exhiliration is the sense of achievement one gets after completing a successful rescue mission.
As we approach the busy spring season, the aircrafts are now on high alert and standby to fly out to remote corners of the country. There are tens of thousands of trekkers and mountaineers all over Nepal, and there are medical emergencies almost every day. Accidental falls on the trekking trails, altitude sickness, frost bite are the most common calls for helicopters.
Not all rescue flights involve trekkers. In fact, Nepalis are increasingly calling in helicopters for rescues. Recently, we rescued a woman from Humla who was having a complicated delivery. She moaned in pain all the way. When we landed in Surkhet, I looked back to see that she had given birth to a beautiful baby boy, the second in-flight birth we have seen so far. There is nothing to compare with the joy of that sight.
I believe the time has come to start an air ambulance service in Nepal. Many road accident victims and other seriously ill people won't survive a bumpy car ride to the nearest hospital, but helicopters are still very expensive even though Nepalis usually pay half the rack rate for an one hour rental. If the government can waive taxes on rescue flights, it would be more affordable. For a real air ambulance, just like a vehicle ambulance, you need life-saving equipment on board and a health attendant to go along.
HRA coordinates helicopter rescue once informed of a case requiring evacuation. For foreign trekkers, the agency will usually have insurance information or an agreement in the event of an emergency evacuation. The HRA coordinates with the agency, insurance company and the relevant embassy ensuring a guarantee prior to dispatching the helicopter. The HRA is on 24-hour radio call with helicopter companies. Cost for helicopter rental is $ 2,440 per hour, and all companies charge minimum three hours for a roundtrip from Kathmandu to Annapurna or the Everest Area for rescues.
Himalayan Rescue Association
Tel: 977-1-4440292, 4440293
Prakash Adhikari +977 9851033046
The morning of 28 April 2010, the clouds were moving in at the Base Camp of Annapurna I. High on the mountain above, a Spanish expedition was stuck at camp at 6,400m on the south face of Annapurna, one of the greatest rock faces on earth. The six-member team had climbed the 8,091m peak the day before, but were trapped by a strong blizzard on the way down. One Spanish climber was dead, the rest needed to be rescued, including Carlos Pauner, Juanito Oirazabal, Horia Colibasanu and Dawa Sherpa. Fishtail Air's AS 350B3, specially fitted for high-altitude rescue was going to try to get them out.
Richard Lehner and Captain Daniel Aufdenblatten of Air Zermatt, a Swiss mountain rescue company had been training Fishtail Air in the Mt Everest region by picking stranded climbers using long ropes. The world's most famous mountain rescuers just happened to be in Nepal, and were pressed into service by Fishtail's Captain Sabin Basnyat who was killed later that year on Ama Dablam while trying to rescue Japanese climbers.
It was like nothing Lehner and Aufdenblatten had seen in the Alps. Annapurna South Face is a vertical wall of ice and rock 4,000m high. "It was really steep," Aufdenblatten recalled later, "flying at 45 m from the rock face, I could look straight down 3,000 metres."
After several attempts, racing against advancing clouds, four climbers were plucked out of the mountain and the two Sherpas made it down on their own. Aufdenblatten was awarded the Heroism Award by Aviation Week in 2011 for the highest-ever rescue in mountaineering history.
Fishtail Air 01-4112230
Mountain Helicopter 01-4111031
Simrik Air 01-4155340
Here come the Flying Trucks