The thing in betweenAll single engine aircraft operators want is a stable policy regime
The debate about single engine aircraft in Nepali skies has begun anew with the Air Kasthamandap’s February 26 accident. Rather than opting for a logical course, the bureaucracy has succumbed to an involuntary kneejerk reaction by grounding all single engine flights in one stroke. Naturally, unlike the operators, the bureaucrats have nothing to lose by doing so. A story in the Nikki Asian Review on Feb 28 carries a blunt question from a former airline operator if the ban will also be extended to Twin Otters, as one of them also crashed two days earlier. The civil aviation sector runs essentially like any other government institution—the only difference being that it has a small base of aviation related people frequenting there, not the general public like elsewhere.
Prior to this incident, there possibly has been no single engine related issue involving fatalities in Nepali skies. The PAC 750-XL, the type that belonged to Air Kathmandu, had its first engine related accident in New Zealand in January 2015. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, as all passengers on it were there for a para jump. The company spokesman labelled it as “one of those things—it does happen from time to time.” However, with two fatalities among the crew members, we cannot afford to be as blunt.
Not ideally flat
Basically an aircraft maker chooses an engine that meets the design thrust and other specific requirements. The New Zealand made aircraft comes with TP6 engine made by Pratt & Whitney (P&W). There are thousands of aircrafts with either this particular engine type or its other derivatives flying around the world. The findings on the New Zealand crash must have established the root cause. Hopefully, our investigation team can also rope in P&W in the investigation if it is an engine related issue as suspected.
Based on a passenger’s description of the typical sound emanated by the dying engine, a pilot, whom this scribe happened to meet in a forum recently, said it was most likely a case of “compressor failure”. Apparently the aircraft had completed over three-fourth of the distance to Jumla and was possibly at cruising altitude. Engine failure in such a situation offers the best possible option, altitude-wise. It allows the pilots to look for reasonably suitable landing area by controlling the aircraft’s glide. This is precisely what the pilots seem to have done but unfortunately the area was not ideally flat and both pilots, by virtue of being in the front, were subjected to maximum force. Passengers were lucky for being able to either jump out or be rescued by villagers as the fuselage broke open on impact.
This piece is unashamedly pro fixed wing single engine (FWSE) aircraft. There must be enough valid reasons for the use of FWSE in this mountainous country where a small patch of flat land can function effectively as a landing strip. These aircraft have been in use in Nepal since the early sixties with Swiss built first ever Pilatus Porter (PP) having been brought in to ferry supplies to Dhaulagiri expedition base camp. The International Red Cross also brought in a couple of PPs to help airlift relief to Tibetan refugees. RNAC also bought two, more powerful, Pilatus turbo props (PC6) providing STOL services to areas frequented by tourists. UNDP Nepal also owned and operated its own PC6 (9N-AAW) flown by non other than Hardy Feurer, the famous Swiss pilot who loved and flew in Nepal for many years. Even the American operated a PC6 for their covert missions hidden behind the façade of Air Ventures.
The renowned Swiss geologist Tony Hagen was personally involved in building a small strip at Mingbo (altitude 4420m) in the shadows of Ama Dablam. Ed Hillary possibly could not have done anything that he did for the Sherpas of Khumbu without the help of the single engines. Emil Wick was the pioneering pilot who flew in with the very first Pilatus Porter and continued flying in Nepal for many years. Hardy believed that a “Pilatus” (he probably meant a FWSE) was right there between a helicopter and a Twin Otter; this undoubtedly highlights the single engine aircraft’s tremendous versatility for a country like ours.
In a tribute to Hardy, Barbara Adams wrote in the Nepali Times some years back. Though they would appear to be reckless at times, they were quite disciplined so far as flying was concerned and they would not take risks unnecessarily. “He never took chances and never had an accident even though he flew 10 hours a day”. The nearest incident he had was when, the engine died down once in mid-flight, and he had to “glide” to Dhangadi, demonstrating its not-often-seen capability. The pilots of Air Kasthamandap might as well have been as lucky. There is no point in treating this sad incident as the pretext to terminate single engine aircraft from Nepal.
Single engine aircraft have a future, only that the government’s policy should be geared towards facilitating, not strangulating, their operations. Imagine the level of penetration the FWSE can provide in facilitating “spot tourism” in the remotest corners of Nepal, and the positive aspects of forward and backward economic linkages such penetration offers to the local economy. The airline entrepreneurs have the idea, know about the economic risks and see a window of opportunity. All single engine aircraft operators want is a stable policy regime. It should not be something that scares away everything based on one unfortunate incident.
Arjyal writes extensively on aviation. He can be reached at email@example.com