Safety first

  • Reliable weather-forecasting systems can help reduce plane crashes
- POST REPORT, Kathmandu
Safety first

Feb 17, 2014-

A Nepal Airlines flight from Pokhara to Jumla crashed in the hills of Argakhanchi district on Sunday, killing all 18 on board. Among the 18 lives lost are three cabin crew, one Danish national and 14 Nepalis, including a child. All communication with the Twin Otter aircraft was lost 20 minutes after take-off; the plane is believed to have crashed shortly thereafter. The Nepal Army mounted a search but efforts were delayed by heavy snow and rain and the fact that the crash location had yet to be ascertained. It was early Monday morning when the crash site was finally discovered and the dead bodies airlifted out.

Though it is still too early to tell what exactly caused the crash, preliminary reports blame inclement weather en route. Visibility at both Pokhara and Jumla airports were said to be normal, prompting the pilot to authorise take off. Photos from the crash site also look like the crash was a controlled flight into terrain. However, there are conflicting reports that a proper weather assessment was not conducted before take off and that there might have been pressure from high-profile passengers to attempt the flight anyway. If true, this would be a gross violation of safety regulations. Given Nepal’s safety record, it would, however, be prudent to wait for a thorough formal report before drawing any hard conclusions. Every year from 2008 to 2012, at least two aircraft, primarily in the hilly and mountainous regions, have crashed. The most recent incident was in May 2013 when another Twin Otter skidded off the runway in Jomson and plunged 25 metres into the Kali Gandaki river. Fortunately, there were no casualties.

Besides the tragic loss of lives, this crash will no doubt hit Nepal’s airline and tourism industries hard. The European Commission (EC) has already blacklisted all Nepali airlines for their poor safety record. This means that no Nepali aircraft are allowed in European airspace and European tourists are discouraged from flying on Nepali airlines. This crash is also certain to affect the EC’s and the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s final safety audit reports, which are currently pending.

The sad fact, however, is that given Nepal’s rugged terrain and the state of the highways, there are few alternatives to flying. And flying too is risky, especially due to capricious weather in the hills and mountains. On routes operating along Visual Flight Rules, such as the Pokhara-Jumla one, pilots rely heavily on ground support and their own prowess, with little technological help from the aircraft. Perhaps better weather forecasting, along with more infrastructures that detect changing weather patterns in rural areas, could have prevented this appalling crash by timely alerting veteran pilot Shanker Shrestha of bad weather en route to Jumla. Now that Nepal Airlines will soon be adding six new Chinese aircraft to its fleet, which come with state-of-the-art on board weather radar, it is time to also consider bolstering technical ground support with more reliable weather forecasting and early warning systems.

Published: 18-02-2014 09:04

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