Print Edition - 2014-11-23  |  Free the Words

The first takeover

  • Seeking to put matters concerning Nepali aircraft registration on the record
- Hemant Arjyal
The first takeover

Nov 22, 2014-

My earlier pieces have dealt with various facets related to flying. This one is no different, but I will not be talking about things dealt earlier. This is about the history of aircraft registration and some interesting Nepal-related facts. The circumstance dealing with Nepali registration is important enough to warrant respectable recognition, more than a mere passing reference in an earlier piece some years ago. This piece seeks to put this issue ‘on the record’, as finding official documents confirming this would be an impossible task.

Telegraphy and aviation

Interestingly, the worldwide advent of wireless telegraphy happens to be directly linked to this topic. Talking about wireless telegraphy, if not regulated strictly, it would have been much like Kathmandu traffic, with everyone transmitting to the same target station hundreds of miles away at the same time. There was no problem in the early years when transmitters were not powerful enough and they seldom had long reach. With the number of stations increasing and transmitters getting better and more powerful, it was high time to have an orderly system.

As such, each country was assigned a radio identification code to avoid chaos. This was done under the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an UN body. Wireless was the upcoming communication alternative but it was necessary to ensure that stations did not jam each other. It is strange that Kathmandu exhibits disorder at its best, as on its streets, in FM frequency allocations too. But the allocations work perfectly, under international supervision, in both high (HF) and very high frequency (VHF) bands for long and short distance communications between aircraft and ground.

How is this relevant to aircraft registration, you may be wondering. An aircraft is also an airborne transmitting station. As such, the wireless related prefix that was assigned to each country came logically to be adopted as the primary aircraft registration prefix as well. The letters before the hyphen stands for the country code and following letters or numbers identify individual aircraft. For example, the aircraft that performed flight CZ-3068 (Kathmandu—Guangzhou), which departed at 23:44 hours on Thursday night at the time of writing, was registered as B-6183.

A case of prefixes

It was no surprise that influential countries were first to grab the choicest one-letter codes. It is ‘N’ for the US (wonder why it is not U), ‘G’ for Great Britain, ‘B’ for China, and so on. It may be opportune to relate this to the upcoming Saarc Summit, as we will have VIP aircraft bearing dissimilar country prefix landing here soon. As for the country code, it is ‘VT’ for India, ‘AP’ for Pakistan, ‘S2’ for Bangladesh, ‘4R’ for Sri Lanka, ‘A5’ for Bhutan, and ‘8Q’ for the Maldives. There is no rhyme or reason here, as can be seen in the allocation. Incidentally, ‘VT’ had been with India since the British Raj, effort to do away with this colonial-era link did not bear fruit as the much desired one-letter prefix belonged to Italy.

Countries with a large number of aircraft go for four or five digit numbers following the registration prefix (China, Japan, the US etc). But many countries are happy following three or four alphabets instead, like the UK, Germany, and most of the Southeast Asian region. There is no strict rule as regards the choice of digits or alphabets, but the country’s prefix, which is ‘9N’ in our case, remains sacrosanct. Nepal is free to have individual aircraft registration starting from AAA to ZZZ. We never had 9N-AAA, the latest registration in the unbroken chain happens to be 9N-AKS, assigned to a Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC)-acquired Y-12. NAC’s first MA-60 landed at Kathmandu not with Nepali but Chinese registration. It remained grounded for a prolonged period and even earned the ‘Hanger Queen’ title. The muddle, as rumoured, was the result of the Chinese not being prompt in de-registering the aircraft.

It was indeed quite a shock to learn that the birth of Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation (RNAC) was an outcome of forced acquisition. It seems that the Maharaja of Mayurbhanj of Odisha, India got married into the Nepali royal family and thereafter, he settled here. The princely state of Mayurbhanj even had a fleet of 14 aircrafts and it was natural that he was interested in aviation, like his father. With the WWII surplus Dakotas (DC3s) selling dirt cheap, he seems to have brought one to Nepal and begun running flights. And since there was no separate civil aviation section, aviation affairs were overseen by the Ministry of Construction and Transportation, then under Ganesh Man Singh. Strangely, the very first aircraft he brought had ‘KN’ in place of the country’s prefix. But Nepal was still not a member of the ITU and thus, had not been assigned any country code, let alone ‘KN’.

First-ever acquisition

Captain KK Shrestha became the first-ever Nepali pilot to be employed in RNAC, even preceding pilots like BK Shrestha (his uncle) and RC Upadhaya. Now leading a retired life, he corroborated the ‘KN’ story. But no sooner had the Dakota started flying, various small operational issues seem to have irritated Singh and this quickly led to its acquisition. The entrepreneurial venture of the Maharaja prematurely ended, but as a consolation, it became the first-ever aviation related acquisition here.   

There are many other unknown facts related to that period. Those can only be filled if the people who worked in that period or with the Maharaja come forward with more factual information. This scribe is trying his level best to contact them and learn more for the sake of recording facts about the dawn of aviation in this part of the world. Appropriate and factual information from any quarters will be more than welcome.  

Arjyal writes extensively on aviation issues

Published: 23-11-2014 09:40

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