Nepal saw a terrifying incident involving the crash of a Yeti Airlines ANC ATR 72-500 aircraft flying from Kathmandu to Pokhara a little distance away from the Pokhara International Airport. The plane was carrying 72 flyers comprising 68 passengers and four crew members. The frequency of dangerous incidents related to aviation in Nepal has been a matter of concern for a long period. The crash on Sunday, January 15 marked Nepal’s deadliest plane crash in 30 years with the country averaging almost one fatal crash every year in the last three decades.
Nepal is home to the tallest mountains in the Himalayan range and the abundance of remote topography in the country demands the use of aerial vehicles in the mountainous terrain, especially for logistic, rescue and relief purposes. The unique geographical location of Nepal along with its volatile weather has always posed a challenge to the field of Nepali aviation. This has resulted in the country being known for its notorious airports and landing pads which are considered some of the most dangerous in the world.
The Himalayan country boasts some of the most remote and tricky runways that make for beautiful scenery and a breath-taking view. However, they test even the most skillful pilots as the constant weather change coupled with strong winds results in treacherous flying conditions. Along with the mountainous terrain, aviation experts have also blamed the lack of sophisticated radar technology in the country and the poor regulation with lack of investment in the aviation industry, as factors to the numerous plane crashes in the country’s history.
(Image: Civil Aviation Authority Nepal)
Nepal’s main aerial hub in its capital Kathmandu, the Tribhuvan International Airport serves as a primary gateway which is used by tourists and locals to take lighter aircrafts mostly operated by domestic carriers to reach other cities which are situated in remote parts of the country. Some of Nepal’s deadliest crashes have taken place at the Tribhuvan airport itself which is perched 1,338 metres above sea level. Surrounded by high jagged mountains, the aeroplanes have a difficult time manoeuvring the sudden turns within the confined space to land safely. These lighter and smaller planes are more affected by the strong weather conditions in Nepal.
ATR planes have been involved in several accidents in the past
The type of plane involved in the Pokhara crash on Sunday, the ATR 72, has been used by several airlines around the world for short regional flights. Introduced in the late 1980s by a French and Italian partnership, the aircraft model has been involved in several deadly accidents over the years. In 2018, an ATR 72 operated by Iran’s Aseman Airlines crashed in a foggy, mountainous region, killing all 65 aboard.
ATR identified the plane involved in Sunday’s crash as an ATR 72-500 in a tweet. According to plane tracking data from flightradar24.com, the aircraft was 15 years old and “equipped with an old transponder with unreliable data.” Yeti Airlines has a fleet of six ATR72-500 planes, company spokesperson Sudarshan Bartaula said.
Europe blacklists 20 Nepali airlines
Many global regulators have taken notice of the lack of civil aviation infrastructure and innovation in Nepal. The European Commission has banned more than 20 Nepali airlines and has prohibited them from flying into Europe citing safety concerns. This ban includes Yeti airlines.
The European Union in a joint press release to Nepal and the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) on November 28, 2022, said that they had decided to keep the Nepali airlines on the ‘EU Air Safety List’ for the time being. Highlighting the National Aviation Safety Plan (2023 to 2025) proposed by CAAN, the EU said, “Regulation on the functional separation of CAAN’s regulatory and service provider roles has been assessed. Now, the implementation of this new regulation, as well as progress in aligning CAAN’s safety oversight capacity with the relevant international safety standards, must be verified through an EU on-site assessment visit to Nepal.”
The European Commission said that it intended to carry out, with the assistance of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the support of Member States, a visit to Nepal in the coming months. The European Commission “will continue to work closely with the CAAN in order to assist, where possible, in Nepal’s efforts to improve the aviation safety situation in the country, whilst at the same time ensuring that any potential safety risks to the travelling public are contained.”
The most dangerous airport in the world
The Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla in the north-east region of Nepal is often touted as the world’s most dangerous airport. It has a single runway, on one end there’s a wall and at the other a steep drop into the valley below. In 2008, 18 passengers and crew died when a Yeti Airlines turboprop plane crashed.
The tiny Himalayan settlement of Lukla in Nepal is at 9,383 feet above sea level. At this altitude air density is considerably lower than at sea level and impacts the speed of the plane making it hard to slow down. At high altitudes, the longer the runway, the better.
But at Lukla airport, the runway is extremely short at just 526 metres. Many international airports around the planet boast runways which are more than 3,000 metres long. There is also the matter of missed approaches which allows the pilot to retry landing if they miss it, but at the Lukla airport once an aircraft approaches, it has to touch down.