A small plane carrying mostly Nepalese passengers and crew members went missing on Sunday, a few minutes after it took off from the resort town of Pokhara. The Nepal Airlines flight, which was bound for Jumla (220 miles to the West of capital Katmandu), is suspected to have crashed into a mountainous forested region in Western Nepal, most likely killing all 18 persons on board.
Officials at Katmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport have blamed bad weather conditions for the plane crash. But the dismal track record of Nepal’s national airline with regard to its safety, has come back to haunt it once again. The region was, however, receiving heavy snowfall for most of the day on Sunday and this, coupled with the rugged mountainous terrain, has forced search and rescue teams to halt their operations. At the moment, foot soldiers are combing the area where the plane might have been before it lost contact with air traffic controllers at the Pokhara Airport. On Monday morning, the two helicopters dispatched for the search operation will resume providing aerial surveillance.
The Twin Otter plane of Canadian manufacture was originally flying from Katmandu to Jumla, but made an unscheduled fueling stop at the Pokhara Airport. The plane, which was carrying 15 passengers and three crew members, took off from Pokhara at 12.40 p.m. local time before it disappeared into the country’s mountainous west minutes later. The plane is thought to have crashed into the forests near Arghakhanchi and the wreckage has been located, according to Sushil Ghimire, Nepal’s Tourism Secretary. It is believed that the plane did not have any de-icing equipment, which is a prerequisite for operating under such weather conditions.
A few among the plane’s passengers have been identified as Gauri Kathyat, a journalist; Deepak Shrestha, an army official; Manab Sejwal, president of the Jumla chapter of the Nepali Congress Party; Dr. Bikalpa Pokharel; D.P. Upadhyay; M. Mathiensen, a Danish national; Barsha Hamal and her infant son Deep Hamal. The crew members aboard the plane have been identified as Captain Shankar Shrestha; Rabindra Banjara, the co-pilot and flight attendant, Muna Maharajan. According to civil aviation authorities, there isn’t much hope for the 18 people on board the Nepal Airlines plane that crashed on Sunday afternoon.
Though this crash may be one of the biggest flying accidents in Nepal, it isn’t the worst to date. Nineteen people on board a Sita Air plane crashed to their deaths in September, 2012. Earlier in May that same year, 15 people were killed when an Agni Air plane crashed at a high-altitude airport. The flight was carrying pilgrims from neighboring India to a Hindu religious site in the north of Nepal.
The country’s flying history, which began in 1949, is dotted with over 70 gory crashes involving planes and helicopters, and more than 700 people have been killed in such accidents so far. The death toll has often been compounded by the fact that rescue operators have to tackle a difficult terrain, surrounded by mountains, cloudy weather and practically no accessibility via roads in very remote areas.
The lack of safety in Nepal’s flights came under international rebuke when in December, 2013 the European Union blacklisted all of Nepal’s 13 private airlines, citing safety reasons. This plane crash, involving a Nepal Airlines plane, that killed all 18 persons on board today, has only further weakened the image of the country’s air safety.
By Aruna Iyer