Nepali Times Asian Paints
Flying into the past with Hardy Fuerer


He came for one month, but ended up staying and flying for the United Nations in Nepal for 20 years. And in that time, there were few things that Swiss pilot and flying instructor Hardy Fuerer didn't do. He dropped live goats by parachute so that mountaineering expeditions could sacrifice them to appease the gods, he was a mail-runner for remote villages, he carried 100 tons of text books to remote areas of Nepal, he flew orange saplings to Jumla and Surkhet and these are now extensive orchards, and one day he even found himself flying the Rockefeller brothers across Nepal.

Hardy Fuerer is back in Kathmandu for the first time after he left Nepal in 1984, and it has been a nostalgic home-coming. "Nepal had always been home to me, and having taxi drivers recognise me at the airport on arrival, and the air traffic controllers and pilots greeting me has made it all very overwhelming," says Fuerer. When he steps into the new control tower at Kathmandu airport, there are shouts of recognition, a lot of back-slapping and recounting of memories. "Remember the time you brought me sugar in Jomsom?" says one. Another remembers the time Hardy Fuerer took off on an overcast monsoon day in the late 1960s when all other flights were grounded, and the Kathmandu air traffic control came on the radio: "Captain Hardy you are cleared to any altitude, you are the only known traffic flying over the kingdom of Nepal at the moment."

Dressed in his trademark navy blue aviation sweater with epaulettes, the interview with Captain Hardy is interrupted frequently as he looks up each time a plane taking off from Kathmandu airport flies by. "I have wanted to fly since I was five. I have been lucky, not everyone ends up doing what they like doing. You could say I was born to fly," he muses. Captain Hardy probably wouldn't have been able to do the kind of flying he did in Kathmandu-sometimes airborne for 10 hours a day-unless he had that deep passion for flying. Such intensive flying was probably illegal by international aviation rules, sometimes flying the whole week from dawn-to-dusk every day as he did while rushing sacks of grain to Jumla during the 1982 food crisis.

In the 20 years he flew in Nepal, Captain Hardy came to know every river, every ridge and almost every rock all over the country-especially since he was involved in the design and construction of nearly 40 short-takeoff and landing (STOL) fields in the remotest parts of the Himalaya. Many of these, like Phaplu, Jomsom, Jumla and Jufal are still in operation while others like Rara and Langtang have fallen into disuse, even though there is tremendous potential for the development of adventure tourism in those areas. Captain Hardy is not plagued by doubts about whether opening these fields was beneficial for the local population: he took it as a given that it was. "We were doing a lot of useful things, we were opening up the country to development, we were bringing in educational services, health facilities and helping farmers with irrigation pipes. And on top of it all, there was the professional challenge of flying in this terrain, and satisfaction as a pilot flying a wonderful machine." He hopes someone in Nepal can use this wealth of experience, either to restart the STOL airfields and begin flights to remote tourist areas, or even get a flight school going. With all the new airlines coming up, there will be a shortage of good pilots trained in the intricate art of flying in the rugged mountains of Nepal, and for this Capt Hardy has just the right aircraft: the Pilatus Turboporter, the Swiss-built Land Rover of the air. "I still think the Porter is the most suitable aircraft for remote area flying in Nepal, its performance in short, dirt air strips, snow, ice and its manoeuvrability in narrow valleys is unmatched," he says. "The Porter is right there between a helicopter and a Twin Otter."

Capt Hardy has many experiences from Nepal that confirm not just the reliability of this single-engine aircraft, but also his own skills as an aviator. Once, flying in from Doti to Dhangadi, the engine died. Luckily, the plane had sufficient altitude for Hardy to glide it down to the plains. He neared Dhangadi and knew that his only chance was to make a landing. But as he made his soundless final approach, he noticed with horror that a whole line of villagers was crossing the runaway unaware that he was coming in to land. Luckily, they saw him at the last moment and scattered, and he just hit some of the dokos they dropped as they fled.

Another time, Capt Hardy was taking an exotic cargo of Merino sheep to Jumla. They were strapped in behind the back seat when one of the animals broke free. "The damn ram was hitting the inside of the plane with his horns," Hardy recalls. He managed to put the plane on level flight (the Porter does not have autopilot) and went back to tighten the ropes.

During the textbook flights, Captain Hardy used to take off before dawn at Nepalgunj on the dark runway while Sundar Gurung and Bharat Bangdel of UNICEF held a torchlight at the centreline. "I climbed to 12,000 feet in the darkness, and landed in Jumla just as it was getting light. This way we managed as many as ten roundtrips per day." Jumla airstrip was also where Hardy used to land regularly in winter with skis. Navigation was a problem in those days, there were few beacons, and the air maps of Nepal had large white patches that said "unmapped terrain". Captain Hardy also became an ambulance service and a flying doctor at times when he had to carry out medical evacuations: local villagers with emergencies, Peace Corps volunteers with appendicitis, or mountaineers with bad injuries.

But as a Swiss, what made Hardy proudest was to have the opportunity to fly in the world's most challenging terrain on an aircraft that had the flags of Nepal and the United Nations on its tail. This plane, with registration 9N-AAW was a fixture over Nepali skies for nearly 15 years until it was sold off by the UN which graduated to twin-engine planes in the mid-1980s.

Captain Hardy loved his work in Nepal so much that he actually had withdrawal symptoms when he went back to Switzerland in 1984. "Only when I left did I realise how much I missed it. I was depressed, Switzerland had changed as well, it had become automated." He says that if someone had told him back in 1966 that he had to go to Nepal to do everything he did over the next 20 years, he wouldn't have done it. "I'd probably have chickened out," Hardy laughs. "But I wouldn't exchange those years of flying in Nepal for anything."

Captain Hardy's email: [email protected]
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(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)