Nepali Times
Here come the Flying Trucks

Nepal is finally entering the Age of the Helicopter, and there is nothing to match the lifting capacity and affordability of hardy Russian-built choppers.


Dhurba Basnet thought he'd die. Delirious with typhoid fever and too weak to walk, the documentary film producer thought he would never make it down from the remote mountain pass in Gorkha-a five-day walk from the nearest roadhead. Then he heard the faint whirr of rotor wings, the incredibly welcome sound of a Bell Jet Ranger flying up the Buri Gandaki Valley. Basnet spent a week in hospital and a month recuperating at home. He says: "I didn't think I'd live. I owe my life to that helicopter."

The inaccessibility of Nepal's rugged mountainous terrain makes helicopters the ideal mode of transport, even though for decades they were out of bounds for everyone except the Army and the royalty. Today, thanks to the 1990 deregulation of the domestic airline industry, private helicopter operators are issued licences, and it has never been easier to hire a helicopter in Nepal. Mountain rescue (Nepal Army pilot, Captain BN Sharma, holds the world record for the highest ever landing by a helicopter when he rescued a Greek trekker stranded at 22,000 feet on Khumbu's Island Peak), sightseeing, cargo flights and even pilgrimages are now possible because of these vertical takeoff and landing whirlybirds.

The mountains and valleys of Nepal are abuzz with the sound of helicopters: the deep thuds of Russian built Mi-17s, the whine of French Ecureuils, and the distinctive double-tailed Kawasaki BK-117. While smaller choppers like the Kawasaki BK-117 and the Ecureuil AS 350 offer tourists a bird's eye view of the Himalaya, it is the Mi-17, aptly nicknamed the "flying truck", that has proved invaluable. The chopper can carry up to four tons of cargo and an additional 24 people-about as much as a Tata truck-and is the only feasible way to transport food supplies and construction material to Nepal's remote districts.

And to think these incredible work machines arrived in Nepal almost only by chance. "We actually applied for a licence to operate fixed-wing craft. But since three companies had already been granted permits, tourism minister Ram Hari Joshi suggested that we apply to operate helicopters instead," recalls Tashi Sherpa, Managing Director of Asian Airlines, the first Mi-17 helicopter operator in Nepal.

In his hunt for the ideal helicopter for Nepal's rugged needs, the late Dawa Norbu Sherpa, founder of Asian Airlines, headed for the former Soviet Union and in mountainous Kirghizstan managed to lease two Mi-17 copters along with a Russian crew. "Kazan, the Russian manufacturers, were keen to test their craft in Nepal's terrain. They thought it would be good for promotion," says Tashi Sherpa.

The Russian choppers were a resounding success, and have since carried 200,000 passengers over more than 20,000 flight hours in Nepal without a single accident. There are now six Mi-17s operational in Nepal, while a few others are awaiting their mandatory $500,000 overhauls having completd 1,500 flying hours. The Royal Nepal Army operates one Mi-17 and is said to be so impressed with its performance and lift capacity that it is thinking of acquiring more.

The Russian machines are cheaper than European ones like the French Super Puma, which carries half the weight of an Mi-17 and costs five times more to operate. An Mi-17 can be chartered for $2,200 per hour, while a four-hour sightseeing trip around Everest costs $3,000 in a five-seater AS 350 and $5,400 in a nine-seater BK-117. "Russian helicopters are cheap, easy to operate, and ideal for heavy-lift work," says Nepal's first commercial helicopter pilot, Lt Col (retd) Narayan Singh Pun.

The range of the Russian choppers is impressive-the Mi-17 can fly up to 6,000m, and pilots swear by the craft's high-altitude performance. This capability has proved valuable in several rescue operations. Asian Airlines MD and Mi-17 pilot Tashi Sherpa recalls the rescue and evacuation of 500 tourists from Phanga in the Everest area in November 1995, when unexpected snowstorms left hundreds stranded in the mountains. In 1998, he was also engaged in rescue operations at Kangchendzonga Camp 1 at 5850 m.

Nepal's Mi-17 operators are now trying to get permission to operate passenger flights once again. Passenger charter flights were discontinued suddenly in 1998 after it dawned on Nepal's Civil Aviation Authority that the Russian craft were not certified to carry passengers. An exception was made for remote areas in Rapti, Karnali and Bheri zones in western Nepal, where road transport does not exist. Operators are permitted to take in passengers on the way back from these areas once they have delivered cargo. "When we operated passenger flights in the Everest area before 1998, our helicopters completed 700-800 flight hours in a year. Today, we do 440-500 flight hours annually," says Phurba Tsering Sherpa, General Manager of Asian Airlines.

They have reason to hope things will change. South African and Canadian passenger transport-type certification have already given Russian helicopters solid footholds in Europe and North America. However, it is the certification conforming to the US Federal Aviation Authority's Federal Aviation Regulations that opens up a massive market for a helicopter manufacturer.

A new variant in the Mi-8/ Mi-17 series, the Mi-17KF has been manufactured jointly by the Kazan Helicopter Plant in Kazan, in the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, and the more design-oriented Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant. Many consider the Mi-17KF, a mid-size multi-role helicopter, a good cross-over craft, suited for commercial as well as passenger transport. It is currently being evaluated for certification by the Institute for Flight Mechanics and Regulations (IFR), one of the most stringent avionics evaluation bodies.

Certification or not, most Russian whirlybirds have seen some modification in their role in Nepal. Firefighting Mi-8s have been used for helitourism as well as lifting work, for instance. Kazan Helicopters claim they can modify even the Mi-8 and the Kamov Ka-32 to suit passenger requirements in Nepal, but Asian Airlines' Sherpa says the Civil Aviation Authority hasn't been very forthcoming with the specifics required for this sort of modification.

Till more formal certification and evaluation, the Russian crafts will continue to service the far-west sector, where desperate passengers often engage in scuffles. "We're sometimes forced to carry more people than there are seats," says pilot Tashi Sherpa. "Those who have to stand complain mildly. The Russians built a great craft. It's a pity they forgot to put in straps."

Other companies, like Col Pun's Karnali Air, used to fly the far west, but have discontinued flights to Dolpo, Upper Gorkha and other areas affected by Maoist activity. The fear of Maoist retaliation forced the company to withdraw its support to the police. "There have been several incidents where helicopters have been hijacked and pilots threatened," says Pun. "One of our helicopters was shot at in western Nepal. The bullet went through the baggage compartment. Fortunately, no one was hurt."

The hills are alive with the sound of choppers and in many ways-for cargo transport, rescue operations and even tourism-that's a good thing, but the question now is what happens to the porters, already among the most disadvantaged of hill communities. A single trip with the Mi-17 filled to capacity puts 500 porters out of work for five days. Choppers are important, but is the diverted income finding its way into the national economy or is it simply paying for expensive foreign technicians, imported machinery and fuel?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)