Photos: Violation of standard procedure at Lukla AirportIt was a sunny afternoon on May 27 when Captain Paras Rai piloted Goma Air Flight 409 from Kathmandu to Lukla, the gateway to Everest.
Fickle weather, negligence behind crash of Flight 409
It was a sunny afternoon on May 27 when Captain Paras Rai piloted Goma Air Flight 409 from Kathmandu to Lukla, the gateway to Everest.
Having flown several times to the Himalayan airstrip, dubbed one of the ‘world’s most dangerous airports’, Rai thought the cargo flight would be just another routine trip. He was accompanied by copilot Shreejan Manandhar and flight attendant Pragya Maharjan.
Halfway into the 30-minute flight, Rai contacted a helicopter pilot based in Lukla and asked him about the weather condition there, preliminary reports showed. The chopper pilot gave him the green signal. As Flight 409 entered the Lukla Valley, where pilots normally wait for a second to check out the runway alignment, the weather suddenly changed and visibility dropped. Lukla was enveloped by thick fog and a light rain began to fall.
Rai is minutes from the airstrip, but he doesn’t see the runway. In such a situation, the air traffic controller should have closed down the airport, but it was not done.
CCTV footage obtained by the Post shows the Czech-made LET L410 aircraft descending towards the runway through the fog. The plane is not aligned with the runway centreline which suggests that the pilot did not see it. As the aircraft with registration number 9N-AKY descends, people at the top of the runway, where the terminal is located, sense something is amiss and rush towards the other end in alarm.
As the runway becomes visible to the pilot, he sees that his aircraft is not lined up with the centreline. He instantly tries to make corrections by making a sharp turn towards the runway threshold, but the aircraft stalls and its nose turns up before disappearing. Plumes of white smoke are seen billowing from the accident site. Airport officials are then seen rushing to the scene.
Captain Rai and copilot Manandhar were killed in the crash. They were pronounced dead at Pasang Lhamu-Nicole Niquille Hospital in Lukla. Flight attendant Pragya Maharjan survived.
Separate photographs of the crash site show the aircraft mowing down a tree before slamming into a mound and breaking into three pieces near the airport’s perimeter fence. This is the second fatal accident since 2008 at Lukla Airport, also known as Tenzing-Hillary Airport, named after the first men to climb Everest.
On October 8, 2008, Yeti Airlines Flight 103 crashed while making the final approach and burst into flames, killing 18 passengers and crew. The aircraft’s captain was the only survivor.
What are the operating procedures?
As per the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Annex 2 Rules of the Air, under visual flight rules (VFR), a flight shall not take off or land at an aerodrome when the cloud ceiling is less than 450 metres or when the ground visibility is less than 5 km. “If these two critical requirements are not met, the airport should be closed,” said an air traffic controller. VFR is a set of regulations under which a pilot operates an aircraft in weather conditions generally clear enough to allow the pilot to see where the aircraft is going.
A standard operating procedure (SOP) was developed for Lukla Airport after the Yeti Airlines Flight 103 crash in 2008. The airport has four sets of conditions.
One, the air traffic controller (ATC) should be able to see the second ridge of the South West or beyond. If this condition is met, it could be assumed that the ground visibility is more than 5 km.
Two, the ATC should be able to see a 3,000-metre hill dubbed ‘105’ from the tower. The ATC can declare the cloud ceiling to be favorable if this condition is met.
Three, the wind speed should be less than 10 knots, equal to 5 metres per second, for aircraft to be permitted to land. Four, the airport should be closed even if the rainfall intensity is light.
“All these conditions should be met before an aircraft is allowed to land or take off,” said the controller who did not wish to be named. “In the case of the latest accident, airport authorities clearly failed to adhere to the conditions and did not bother to temporarily shut down the airport.”
“Under VFR, pilots are given the authority to decide whether to fly or not. But airport authorities should also follow their SOP regardless of the pressure they are under. If the airport had been closed, the crash would have been prevented.”
Lukla Airport Chief Yogendra Kunwar and on duty Air Traffic Controller Ujjwal Tiwari have been recalled to Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (Caan) headquarters, which is the first instance of officials being summoned after a crash. Kunwar had taken sick leave by submitting a falsified medical certificate, and had flown to Canada to attend a conference of air traffic controllers. He produced the fake medical certificate to get around the Election Commission’s code of conduct which bars government officials from travelling abroad after polls have been scheduled. Some Caan officials said that Tiwari was an inexperienced controller assigned to handle traffic at the airport even though it is located between hills and requires a highly experienced controller. An aeronautic engineer by profession, Tiwari joined Caan as an ATC only a year ago. The accident clearly shows that the ATC did not follow SOP.
“We have formed an inquiry committee to probe the matter,” said Rajan Pokhrel, deputy director general of Caan. “If they are found guilty, they will face departmental action.” Pokhrel said that Caan had been forced to recall them as their lives were under threat due to public anger after the crash.
“How did the airport chief reach Canada when he was ill?” asked Ang Tashi Sherpa, station manager of Goma Air at Lukla Airport, on his Facebook page. “The trend of blaming the pilot all the time should be stopped, and Caan employees should also be punished for their negligence.”
The pilot also violated SOP by flying in an adverse weather condition, according to Caan. Lukla Airport, perched on a steep cliff, is considered to be one of the ‘world’s most dangerous airports’ as it demands courage and precision to fly to the tiny, treacherous runway.