Dangerous skiesNepal should particularly strive for exceptional air safety standards given the tough terrain
Early morning on May 16, Nepal woke up to another aircraft disaster. A single engine Cessna 208 Grand Caravan aircraft belonging to Makalu Air crashed in the mountainous Humla region, killing both pilots on board. The disaster related to this cargo designated flight, with no passengers on-board, serve to remind us that no matter how big or small the aircraft, such air-related accidents always can end in tragedy.
It will take some time for the investigation to be concluded; for us to find out what exactly happened leading up to the crash. Preliminary reports suggest that the nature of the crash was a Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT), which means that the aircraft was air-worthy, under the control of the pilots and unintentionally hit terrain. But no matter the cause, this incident reminds us how important air safety is, especially in a country like Nepal where the geography and weather is challenging.
Nepal has suffered through almost 30 fatal airplane crashes in the past three decades; and the number rises much higher when considering helicopter crashes and non-fatal accidents. Only three months ago, on March 12, an aircraft belonging to Bangladesh-based US-Bangla Airlines met with an accident in Kathmandu, killing 51 people. Airports and airfields in the mountainous regions of the country consistently feature among the worst in the world, with the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla largely considered as the most dangerous one. Such safety ratings come as no surprise when even Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in Kathmandu, Nepal’s only international airport, is considered as very dangerous. Pilots require special training to fly to and from TIA. And TIA faces other issues that make it unsafe.
Cracks on the runway occur frequently, and aircraft are put on hold or diverted while repairs occur. Even without cracks adding to the delay, TIA’s one and only runway is congested enough that it is a common occurrence for incoming flights to circle around, waiting for upwards of an hour before being allowed to land. Although a holding pattern is a fairly easy manoeuvre compared to other tasks in instrument flying, it is a source of confusion and apprehension for exhausted pilots and passengers. It can also cause the pilots to be disorientated, with potentially fatal consequences. Moreover, Nepal’s airports have had cases of air traffic controllers and flight crew not following set Standard Operating Procedures prior to and during take-off and landing, which also affects air safety.
The safety problem is far reaching and deep set in Nepal. In fact, the European Commission (EC) since 2013 has banned all Nepali airlines from flying into the European Union. The EC took such a measure then because the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) had raised a red flag over all flight operations in Nepal, citing critical lapses in air safety compliance made by the country’s civil aviation sector. Though ICAO removed its concerns, the EC still considers Nepal’s safety level sub-par.
Accidents happen, and are especially prone to happen in a country like Nepal whose beautiful yet deadly terrain adds significant risk to flight operations. Moreover, meteorological conditions in the country, such as the occurrence of thick fog conditions, makes the airspace all that more challenging for pilots. However, it is for such added risks that Nepal must particularly focus on air safety. As Nepal plans to build more airports, it shouldn’t forget to first invest in improving the safety standards in the airports currently in operation.