Nepali Times
Flying in the rain


The monsoon has always been a time when passengers, crew and civil aviation officials keep their fingers crossed.

Given Nepal's terrain, cloud cover over the mountains during the rainy season makes it necessary for crew to be particularly careful. It is no surprise that most accidents in Nepal are classified as 'controlled flight into terrain', and most of them happen during the monsoon.

This monsoon was no different. The rains had barely begun when a Dornier 228 carrying nine passengers and three crew had a narrow escape after the aircraft veered off the runway at Lukla on 29 June.

With highway journeys unreliable because of the insurgency and landslides and air fares coming down due to competition, more and more people are opting to fly within Nepal. In addition, there are new operators and for the first time jet aircraft are flying domestic routes.

This monsoon, we have to ask ourselves: are we doing enough to ensure flight safety? Are the pilots given refreshers regarding specific technical issues of monsoon operations and its difficulties? Are ground navigation aids up to international standards? Is the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) doing enough to ensure there is not going to be another mishap this monsoon?

Most aviation accidents do not have just one cause. We have to ask if cash-starved operators are serious about flight safety. Are they exerting pressure on crew to complete flights or cut corners? There are plenty of examples of pilots trying to race the rains to a particular airfield to land before the clouds move in.

What is worrying is the growing number of airlines and their stiff competition which puts air crew under pressure to complete a flight under any circumstances. Delays and cancellations cost money, besides tarnishing the reputation of the airline.

Pilots should never be forced to fly if their professional judgement tells them otherwise. There is no place here for bravado. When driving rain brings runway visibility below minimum, when mountain passes are covered by clouds, or when there is doubt about en route weather it is no time for heroics. No one is going to applaud a pilot who has a reputation for flying in any kind of weather. But who is checking?

Kathmandu airport is equipped with radar, VOR and NDB beacons but even here, ground navigational aids (navaids) are not up to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards. Given Nepal's notorious monsoon cover, flights often have to make instrument approaches or divert. CAAN should get out of its donor-dependent mode and make its own choices about what is urgently needed to improve flight safety. A donor-funded VOR-DME beacon at Bhatte Danda on Kathmandu's approach has never been operational.

If that is the case with Kathmandu, the less said about other airfields the better. Only nine of Nepal's 40 airports have paved runways and most don't have navaids. In fact, none of the airports meet 21st century standards for equipment and safety. Even if they can't be totally modernised, the airfields need urgent upgrades.

On top of all the aviation safety issues there is the new added concern of flying into insurgency-affected areas and airfields with inadequate security. Helicopters have been fired at and some airfields have closed down due to security reasons. In fact, in an emergency a pilot can't even land at some of these airfields because they are not secure. It's a miracle remote area airfields are still being serviced by airlines.

Then there is the meteorology department, which needs urgent equipment upgrades to improve weather forecasting.To be sure, CAAN has been holding workshops to make pilots and air traffic controllers aware of monsoon flying issues. Upgraded air traffic control have made a difference in aviation safety but a lot more needs to be done. Our controllers and others need advanced training abroad in state-of-the-art safety procedures.

Traffic volume has risen dramatically after the open-skies policy. It is even more important now to have air traffic controllers who can respond efficiently and with clarity during emergencies.

As airlines bring in new aircrafts, ground equipment has to keep pace with modern cockpits. At the same time, it is the old workhorses like the Twin Otters that face the brunt of bad weather operations with limited equipment, lower altitude flying and to remote airfields with almost no en route ground navaids.

Capt Vijay Lama (pictured) has been flying Twin Otters with Royal Nepal Airlines for 17 years

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)