“He used to say, ’24 hours [in a day] not enough for me! »
Bibhuti Ghimire’s voice cracks as she describes her father, a highly respected pilot in Nepal and a multi-talented man with a flair for music, who would get bored playing the piano and switch to the harmonium. “And he liked to fly.”
At 9:55 a.m. on Sunday May 29, Captain Prabhakar Prasad Ghimire took off aboard a Canadian-made DHC-6-300 Twin Otter, operated by Tara Air, for what would be his final flight. After waiting more than three hours for conditions to clear up, he was only 12 minutes into the flight, from Pokhara to Jomsom, when all contact was lost.
The aircraft had turned into the mountainside at approximately 14,500 feet. Ghimire, the two crew members and the 19 passengers perished. It took more than two days for search and rescue teams to locate all the bodies, with efforts hampered by bad weather.
The crash has again brought to light Nepal’s poor aviation safety record, especially for its domestic services. It was the 104th non-military disaster since 1955 and the seventh for an airline along this route in the past 30 years. Previous disasters have since 2013 prompted an EU ban on Nepalese airliners, and May’s crash has led to renewed calls for the government to spend more to protect domestic travellers.
“We can do more,” insists Ashok Pokharel, president of the Nepalese Association of Tour Operators. “For example, older planes don’t have modern weather radars. This could be mandatory so that the captain has real-time weather information about what he is flying towards.
The plane that Ghimire piloted made its first flight in 1979. It was not equipped with GPS technology which could have been used by the pilot in poor visibility and could possibly have saved lives.
“We cannot afford to continue flying planes that are 43 years old,” says Captain Bed Upreti, himself a very experienced pilot.
The majority of fixed-wing accidents in Nepal occur with short take-off and landing (Stol) aircraft. These planes go to hard-to-reach places, such as Jomsom or Lukla, a popular starting point for visitors to Mount Everest.
“Especially if it’s Stol aircraft, the technology, or lack thereof, is dangerous to fly in a place like Nepal,” Upreti says.
Questions are being asked whether pilots involved in crashes in Nepal at low altitude have the information and technology to avoid making mistakes, before and during flights.
“We are unable to provide the operational meteorological service required for domestic flights that operate below 10,000 feet,” says Dr. Archana Shrestha, senior Nepal government meteorologist.
Significant investment has been made in weather observation and forecasting for international travel at Tribhuvan International Airport in Nepal. However, progress in domestic services has been lacking, with pilots often relying on observations from airport weather stations.
“Government needs to spend more on aviation meteorological institutional development and service delivery, as well as airport construction,” says Shrestha.
Ghimire’s family and colleagues were shocked by the manner in which he died.
“He was known as the pilot who would never fly in bad circumstances. He would cancel the flight, despite the losses the airline would incur,” says his daughter.
The plane he was flying went down during the pre-monsoon season, when cloud formations can quickly engulf mountainsides and, combined with unpredictable changes in wind and atmospheric pressure, make the route even more dangerous. Usually there is only a short window, first thing in the morning, when it is safe to fly.
There is a feeling in Nepal that, given the forces of nature in the region, such disasters may be unavoidable.
In September, once the monsoon is over, the country is expected to open up to tourists for its busiest season in years, following the lifting of Covid restrictions. Around the same time, the May 29 crash investigation report is expected to be released. Whatever the findings, the question remains whether Nepal’s domestic air services are ready to keep passengers and crew safe, especially as tour operators seek to make up for lost time.
“We just hope that through this accident lessons will be learned so that it never happens again,” says Bibhuti Ghimire.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal said it would not make any statement on the crash until the report’s findings are released.