Nepali Times

Another plane, Another helicopter-borne search on a steep mountainside. Another news bulletin that begins: "There were no survivors when a Nepali airliner on a domestic flight slammed into a mountain..."

It follows like a well-practised ritual: the grim task of picking up the remains, the horrific wait of grieving relatives at the post-mortem ward of Bir Hospital, the condolence notices in the week\'s papers with pictures of the youthful crew in uniform, a vague investigation report one year later that blames "human error".
How long can this go on?

There is no doubt that something is seriously unsafe about flying in Nepal. That was evident after the double tragedy in the monsoon of 1992 when two Airbus 310s crashed into the mountains while preparing to land in Kathmandu within two months of each other. A total of 270 people were killed.

The planes were either seriously off course or below the assigned altitude. A radar was installed after the crashes. But it didn\'t prevent the crash of a cargo jet last year. The reason, according to the investigation report, was that there was no one at the radar controls when the plane took off because a change of shifts was taking place.

Nepal\'s domestic aviation is now averaging four accidents every year. Nearly all of them are technically "controlled flight into terrain" (CFIT), which means a perfectly good plane under full control of a flight crew flies into a mountain during poor visibility.

Nepal is one of the most vertical countries on earth, and flying here is regarded as challenging at the best of times. Along most domestic air routes, the terrain rises steeply from 1.000 to 8,000 meters within a horizontal distance of barely 20 km.

A Royal Nepal Twin Otter during a rapid turnaround at Dolpo\'s Jufal airport amidst towering mountains.

It is during the monsoons, when clouds hide the mountains that things get particularly tricky.

While being trained to fly in Nepal, rookie pilots are warned not to go into clouds because "they have rocks in them".

Pilots need to be extremely alert, especially when they are below the assigned safe altitude for that sector or while deviating to avoid weather. As the record shows, there is almost no chance of surviving a CFIT, and in most of the accidents everyone on board has been killed.

"During the monsoon, you better know exactly where you are and how high you are allowed to be,\' says one veteran Nepali pilot who started out with DC-3s in the 1960s.There is no room for error while flying in the Himalaya. It is unforgiving terrain."

It is when pilots are not trained properly on new routes, or when they do not follow guidelines for course heading and altitude that there is danger of slamming into a mountain. Or, in some cases, a contributing factor is that overloaded planes are not able to maintain proper climb rates.

Pilots are extra careful at Nepal\'s most-infamous airports like Lukla, Phaplu or Dolpo, which is like landing on an aircraft carrier with a sloping deck. Ironically, very few crashes have occurred at those airports, and even when there are mishaps, there haven\'t been fatalities.

It is during cruise or while descending to land that planes have most often flown into mountainsides. The Necon Air crash that killed 15 last year clipped a telecommunication tower at the western end of the Valley while flying through a cloud. The Lumbini Air plane took the wrong turn northwest of Pokhara and ended up hitting a cliff in cloud.

The pilot of the Everest Air flight to Bharatpur in 1993 thought he had cleared the mountains when he hadn\'t, and hit a last hill in cloud.

According to air traffic controllers in Dhangadi this seems to be exactly what happened to "Bravo Papa" last week.

The pilot radioed that he had cleared the last ridge and was coming in to land on runway 09, but he seems to have been off course and hit the summit of the cloud-shrouded Chure Hills. All the four crashes above took place during the monsoon.

In most other countries, such a high rate of fatalities per passenger mile flown would have been cause for alarm. In Nepal, there is an almost blase attitude about accidents. It is mostly blamed on dasa (fate), whereas air safety planners should be looking at ways to minimise CFIT risk. There is talk that the government is considering making it mandatory that airlines install the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS). a sophisticated piece of equipment that gives a pilot a 20-second warning that he is about to fly into a mountain.
The EGPWS is a radar that integrates information from a global positioning and navigation satellite system. But this equipment costs US$ 55,000 and may be beyond the reach of most shoe-string domestic airlines.

The US-based Flight Safety Foundation regards CFIT as the major cause of preventable air accidents and has put out a recommendation for EGPWS, colour-coded air navigation charts showing terrain, and an automatic cockpit instrument calling out altitude.

Back in Nepal after every crash, our tourism ministers have a new drill: first announce an investigation, then tour the crash site in the presence of TV. One minister even began a tradition last year of televised "surprise" checks of aircraft on the tarmac.

All air-crash stories end with the customary announcement of the investigation team\'s report after which everything goes back to normal: no heads roll, no negligent company or official gets disciplined.
No new lesson is learnt.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)