Captain Alexander Maximov used to fly MiG fighters in Russia before coming to Nepal to work for Avia Club in Pokhara.
On Saturday morning he had taken a tourist up the Seti Valley in his blue single-engined Ukrainian-made Aeroprakt to see the Annapurnas up close. It wasn't a perfect day and there were lingering clouds from the previous night's thunderstorm. He got back to Pokhara, and took off immediately again with another passenger before the winds picked up over the mountains.
He had reached his cruising altitude of 3,300 m above the Seti, 25 km north of the airport with Machapuchre and Annapurna 4 towering over him. Looking down, he noticed something odd. The Seti wasn't its usual thin white thread at the bottom of the valley, but looked like a brown rope. The leading edge of the wave was a dark wall of water he estimated to be about 10 m high.
PICS: ALEXANDER MAXIMOV
Because of his military training, Maximov knew exactly what he was seeing and thought he better alert people downstream. He immediately radioed Pokhara tower and told the air traffic controller that "a big water" was coming down the Seti. The control tower informed security agencies and FM stations in the city, and it was possibly because of this half-hour forewarning that a lot of lives were saved.
"I could see multiple avalanches of ice and rock blocking the Seti just below the point where the Bhujung Khola joins it," Maximov told Nepali Times over phone from Pokhara on Saturday evening, "I turned the plane around to head back to the airport, but the water was travelling faster than the plane."
Still, by putting the plane on a shallow dive Maximov managed to catch up and took dramatic aerial pictures of the Seti flood arriving on the northern edge of Pokhara before disappearing underneath the city. The flood was preceded by a red mass of floating logs as the water raced down river.
Maximov has been flying in Pokhara now for more than a decade, but says he has never seen anything like what he saw on 5 May. He was also saddened by the loss of life, especially when he heard that three Ukrainian visitors had been swept away by the flood at Tatopani and are still missing.
In his own understated and modest way, Maximov brushed aside praise for the quick thinking that may have saved so many lives. "I was just doing my job and what anyone else in my place would have done," he said.