Head in the cloudsSome people would say that I have my head in the clouds, but I have always been an avid plane watcher. And the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the early
Some people would say that I have my head in the clouds, but I have always been an avid plane watcher. And the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the early days is the thunderous roar and wide silvery wings of the Dakota. Everyone who grew up in 1960s Kathmandu has the venerable aeroplane imprinted on the retina. It had a fat body, the front looked like the head of a dolphin, and an antenna wire extended from behind the cockpit to the top of the tail fin. When at rest on the tarmac, the Dakota pointed up at a steep angle, as if thrusting out its chest at unseen challengers. During the take-off roll, the tail would lift so that the plane became level before leaving the ground. Hero of World War II and beloved of the 101st Airborne, the heart swelled just looking at the wondrous machine. And every time there was a deep whine in the sky, we kids would race up the stairs to the terrace and wave and shout as the aircraft skimmed over the roofs.
The house we lived in then was one of the tallest in the neighbourhood of north Asan. My grandmother maintained a rooftop garden which was crammed with flower pots; and besides a variety of flora and fauna, it offered an unobstructed view across town. You could see the time on Ghantaghar and beyond to Gauchar aerodrome. As the runway extended north to south along a plateau, you got a cinemascope view of aircraft landing and taking off. One of our favourite pastimes in those televisionless days was lazing in the sun and counting the number of flights that had arrived and departed.
Many a time in the morning, we would be woken up by the sound of piston engines revving up at Gauchar as the Dakotas prepared to take off for distant airfields in the mountains. For people living in remote parts of roadless Nepal, the airplane was a boon from the heavens. The only highway in the country in those days was Tribhuvan Rajpath, which ran from Kathmandu to the Indian border. Everywhere else, you trekked merrily across the landscape with the great Himalaya as a backdrop. The start of air services in the early 1950s turned days of walking into minutes of flying, and it was absolutely amazing for a country emerging out of the medieval ages. When the strange ship descended from the sky, it was no less than a close encounter of the third kind.
Some of the Dakotas that flew in Nepal had been presented by the US as part of its programme to help Nepal get off the ground, so to speak. They were former military transport planes with the designation C-47 Skytrain, and could very well have been veterans of the Hump airlift, an operation under which hundreds of US aircraft carried supplies from Assam over the Himalaya to China for many years. The plan was to ensure that China was well supplied so it could keep up the war with Japan, and allow the Allies to concentrate their efforts on other theatres. After the war, surplus aircraft were given away as gifts or sold here and there. Imagine riding in a plane that took part in this historic campaign. The early Dakotas had seats along the sides of the cabin, so passengers sat facing each other, like paratroopers being taken to be dropped over some combat zone.
My first experience of flying was in a Dakota to Simara by Royal Nepal Airlines. The flight was a 15-minute hop over jungle covered hills to the southern plains. It saved a whole day trip by bus over a long and winding road. The Nepal Government Railway from Amlekhgunj to Raxaul was still running at that time, and seeing the train chugging through the forest was another memorable experience after the aerial journey.
Royal Nepal Airlines had started in 1958 with a lone Dakota. Before that, there were only Indian carriers, and they also flew the same Douglas DC-3 aircraft. Indian National Airways was the first airline to offer scheduled services in 1951, linking Kathmandu with Patna and Kolkata. After that came Himalayan Aviation, Airways India and Kalinga Airlines. All of them were later nationalised and merged into a new company, Indian Airlines. In 1967, another landmark was set when the first jet plane arrived in Kathmandu, a Lufthansa Boeing 707 that brought German President Lübke on an official visit to Nepal. The pilot had made a practice run without the president a day earlier because of the short runway. It was the weekend, and we were loitering around the school grounds when one of the fathers rushed towards us and, pointing at the sky, shouted, “Jet, jet!” We looked up and watched the massive airliner for a few seconds before it vanished into the blue.
During the high school years, plane watching had progressed to going to the airport for a close-up view. We spent the vacations lying on the grass beside the runway, and it was pure joy watching awesome jets scream past. Every chance we got, we would jump on our Chinese bicycles and trundle off to the airport. Pedalling up the Dilli Bazaar slope and then alternately coasting downhill and climbing uphill, it was always exciting when we reached Gauchar. Things were slower and friendlier in those days, so you smiled at the guards and sauntered around the terminal to the runway. We lay there and waited, and whenever the siren went off signalling an incoming aircraft, we scanned the sky to see where it was coming from. A shimmering light in the distance would become larger and larger, and then finally we would be able to make out the wings. There was a delightful variety of aircraft, so each arrival was something to look forward to.
A good day to go to the airport was when the Thai Airways flight from Bangkok arrived because you would get to see a special display. When the Caravelle touched down on the runway, people watched with their jaws agape as a parachute would pop out of its tail to slow it down. The plane had to use a drag parachute for extra braking because of Gauchar’s short runway. Thai became the first airline to operate jet services to Kathmandu in 1968.
In later years, there were other exciting events at Gauchar like the arrival of an Air France Concorde in 1987, and a few weeks later, an Air Canada Boeing 747. But by then the airport, more widely known as Tribhuvan International Airport and with a lengthened runway, had become off-limits to amateur plane watchers, and we had to be satisfied with watching the supersonic airliner and the jumbo jet on the news. And so the days of cycling to the airport to marvel at the planes came to an end. But working in an office building overlooking TIA has allowed me to continue my hobby with little effort. I just turn my head and look out the window whenever I hear the growl of jet engines. But they don’t make planes like they used to, and nothing beats the magic of watching a Dakota land or take off.