At least 68 people were killed after a domestic flight of Yeti Airlines carrying 72 passengers crashed near Pokhara International Airport in Nepal on Sunday (January 15) minutes before it was scheduled to land. The search and rescue operations by the country’s emergency personnel for the four people still missing began on Monday, while Nepal’s Army has said that they have not found anyone alive from the crash site in Pokhara.
The crash also marked the worst air disaster that the Himalayan nation has witnessed in the past three decades while Nepal continues to be one of the riskiest places to fly, as per multiple reports and the country’s poor flight safety record. The incident on Sunday was the deadliest in Nepal since the 1992 Pakistan International Airlines Airbus A300 plane crash. Notably, the crash took place near the Nepalese city of Pokhara, a popular tourist destination and the starting point for the famous Annapurna Circuit Trek which attracts thousands of hikers every year.
What happened in Pokhara?
As per reports, the flight had taken off from the Nepalese capital Kathmandu and was headed to Pokhara, however, minutes before completing the 27-minute flight and landing at the Pokhara International Airport it broke and caught on fire which was later doused. According to plane tracking data from FlightRadar24, the aircraft was 15 years old and “equipped with an old transponder with unreliable data.”
However, while the exact cause of the crash remains unknown the twin-engine ATR 72 aircraft’s black boxes which include a cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder have been recovered and handed over to the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), said a Yeti airlines spokesperson.
According to the CAAN, the Yeti Airlines plane made contact with Pokhara airport from Seti Gorge at 10:50 am (local time) and “then it crashed”. The 72 passengers on board included three children, three infants, and four crew members out of which 57 were Nepalis. While the 15 foreign nations included five Indians, four Russians, one Irish, two South Korean, one Australian, one French and one Argentinian national onboard as per media reports.
“I saw the plane trembling, moving left and right, and then suddenly it nosedived and it went into the gorge,” said Khum Bahadur Chhetri, a local resident to Reuters. While several previous crashes in Nepal have been attributed to the region’s sudden changes in weather which can contribute to hazardous flying conditions, on Sunday, they were reported to be clear. Therefore, there is no immediate indication of what caused the crash.
The flight-tracking website, FlightRadar24 also said that the last signal from the transponder was received at 0512 GMT at an altitude of 2,875 feet above mean sea level while the Pokhara Airport is located at about 2,700 feet.
Nepal’s reaction to the incident
After the incident, Nepal Prime Minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, said he was “deeply saddened by the sad and tragic accident.” Subsequently, he called an emergency meeting of the Council of Ministers and directed the country’s home ministry, security personnel and government agencies to carry out immediate search and rescue operations, on Sunday. Meanwhile, he monitored the rescue and salvage efforts from Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu.
Additionally, the Nepalese PM also ordered an investigation into the crash and a five-member panel has been set up for the inquiry. Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister Bishnu Paudel told the press that the panel which is set up to investigate the crash is expected to report within 45 days. The Himalayan nation is also observing a day of national mourning on Monday (January 16) for the victims of the crash.
The investigation by the government committee into the crash will also receive assistance from French authorities as the Yeti Airlines-operated twin-engine ATR 72 is manufactured by aerospace company ATR. “ATR specialists are fully engaged to support both the investigation and the customer,” said the France-based company, in a statement. Meanwhile, Yeti airlines have also cancelled all regular flights for Monday in “mourning for the passengers who lost their lives.”
The plane is said to have plummeted into a steep gorge and Army personnel used ropes and stretchers to retrieve bodies from the 300-metre-deep ravine. The search efforts were called off after dark on late Sunday, Army spokesman Krishna Prasad Bhandari said and was to resume the next day. According to Nepal Armed Police Force official, Shambhu Subedi, Nepal’s police, “the armed police, the military and the Red Cross, all agencies are involved in the rescue and search operation”.
He added that all the dead bodies have been transferred to the hospitals and due to the “very difficult” terrain it has been tough to carry out search operations at the crash sites, reported AP.
What makes air travel in Nepal risky?
As mentioned earlier, Nepal has a long and unfortunate history of plane crashes which have been attributed to a number of reasons ranging from sudden weather changes, mountainous topography of the region and lax regulations, making the Himalayan nation one of the riskiest places to fly. Notably, Nepal is also home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains including Mount Everest.
According to the data from Aviation Safety Network, the crash on Sunday not only marks the worst air disaster in the country in three decades but is also the third-worst aviation accident in Nepal’s history. Furthermore, the Himalayan nation has witnessed nearly 27 fatal plane crashes in the past 30 years out of which 20 have taken place in the last 10 years or so. A report by the country’s CAAN stated, “diversity of weather patterns together with hostile topography are the main challenges surrounding aircraft operations in Nepal due to which the number of accidents related to small aircraft….seems comparatively higher.”
The Himalayan nation is home to some of the most remote and tricky runways which even the most accomplished pilots face challenges navigating through. Additionally, aircraft operators have long said that the country lacks infrastructure for accurate weather forecasts, particularly in the remote mountainous regions where deadly plane crashes have taken place in the past.
However, poor maintenance of aircraft, lax regulations, as well as insufficient training of pilots, have also contributed to the number of plane crashes that have taken place in Nepal. In 2013, the European Union banned all Nepal-based airlines from its airspace citing safety concerns and the country’s requests to remove some airlines from the blacklist were rejected again last year, as per media reports.
Some of the most recent plane crashes in Nepal
May 29, 2022: At least 22 people including 16 Nepalis, four Indians and two German nationals were killed after a De Havilland Canada DHC-6-300 Twin Otter plane operated by Nepali carrier Tara Air crashed soon after taking off from Pokhara. Subsequently, the accident, in part, was attributed to poor weather conditions, as per a preliminary investigation carried out by CAAN.
April 14, 2019: At least three people were killed and four others were injured after a small plane veered off the runway while taking off near Mount Everest and hit a parked helicopter. The accident took place at an airport which is often referred to as the world’s most dangerous one due to its short runway and difficult approach.
March 12, 2018: One of the deadliest aviation accidents in the country for decades was witnessed on this day when 51 people were killed after a flight from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka crash-landed at Kathmandu airport after skidding into a football field where it burst into flames.
(With inputs from agencies)