Print Edition - 2018-09-22  |  On Saturday

To the rescue

  • An account of the Simara Airport’s response to the devastating 1993 floods in the Kathmandu Valley

Sep 22, 2018-

It was July of 1993 and the rains would not stop. Torrential rain for several days led to a flood the kinds Kathmandu had never seen before, or since. The raging waters washed away the roads and bridges connecting the Kathmandu Valley to the rest of Nepal, virtually isolating the Capital. The only possible connection was through the air, not just for immediate rescue and relief operations, but also the supply of essential goods.

The situation was looking dire and the government needed to step into action. Simara Airport, as the closest to Kathmandu, was declared the main base for relief operations, which began under a high-level committee led by a cabinet minister. Simara Airport, which was used for one Twin Otter flight a day, was now providing services to more than a hundred movements a day. At that time, I was Chief of Simara Airport, and along with my 30 staff, we worked from dawn to dusk.

The primary issue we needed to address back then was the state of the runway. The unpaved grassy runway was no problem as long as a sole Twin Otter flight was in operation. However, as flight movements increased significantly, along with the increase in rainfall, it was obvious that the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) had to close the runway frequently for safety and maintenance purposes.

Although two private domestic airlines had been introduced just a year before the incident, the monopoly of the then Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation (RNAC) had not ended yet, especially in Simara. The single daily flight to Kathmandu was increased to several additional ones due to the disaster. However, access to air tickets was next to impossible for the general public; beneficiaries of RNAC flights were government officials, local businessmen, industrialists, and of course,the kith and kin of airline staff. Ironically, some influential Indians from across the border easily managed to get flights from Simara as and when they required. The Simara-Kathmandu flight was always in high demand as most Indians who lived close to the border preferred travelling to international destinations via Kathmandu.

As the floods escalated, rescue and relief operations from Simara were also intensified, with several Nepal Army helicopters and fixed wing aircraft marshaled to carry out rescue and relief and transport essential materials to Kathmandu. Piles of perishable materials like fish and vegetables were dumped along the airport periphery and hundreds of passengers were stranded with a hope to get a flight to Kathmandu. At such a critical time, all airport staff cooperated and served wonderfully, working without grievances or demands for additional remuneration. Now, looking back after almost 25 years, I feel proud to have had such dedicated staff members.

The Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) had provided an oil tanker to the Simara Airport for refueling purposes and refueling facilities for helicopters were also provided at the NOC’s Amlekhgunj Depot. Later, the late crown prince Dipendra himself was engaged in the distribution of relief materials, piloting the 9N RAG (Super Puma) helicopter himself.  As the climate was very hot and humid, Dipendra would rush to the airport’s VIP room for respite after the completion of every flight. The VIP room’s timeworn air conditioner produced more noise than cold air, so I offered him a chilled Coke whenever he appeared.

During the peak of rescue operations, two remarkable incidents occurred. A British-built Avro aircraft with a call sign RAN-20 almost skidded off the runway during take-off but luckily gained control and lifted off with great difficulty. The aircraft was fully loaded with several barrels of petroleum products. Had it not successfully taken off, there would’ve been a serious disaster. The pilots had paid no heed, despite the ATC’s advice to not depart due to the slippery runway, but the ATC could not prevent the flight from taking off either, since it was an army aircraft.

The other incident concerned a 9N-ABS, a Twin Otter operated by the Air Transport Support Centre (ATSC) under the Department of Civil Aviation. This aircraft was also carrying barrels of petroleum products. Its cargo latching had fragmented during take-off role. As the aircraft was still below V1 speed, the pilot was able to reject the take-off and a serious disaster was averted.

As the rescue operations went on, a well-known TV journalist from Nepal TV came with his crew to my office to cover the on-going operations. They recorded controllers at work in the control tower and the landing and take-offs of aircraft engaged in relief activities. It was my privilege to be interviewed by Vijay Kumar.

One day, king Birendra and queen Aishwarya deigned to visit Simara Airport to observe first-hand the relief activities. As soon as the king disembarked from the helicopter, I introduced myself as the airport chief. After obtaining briefings from the concerned officials on the relief work, the king spent about an hour at the airport. While escorting him to the helicopter on the way back, I did not miss the chance to brief the king about the importance of Simara Airport, how all international flights need to pass over Simara before initiating their approach towards Kathmandu. That was a matter of great satisfaction for me, having an opportunity to converse with the king.

The ordeal ended with everything working out well for everyone involved. Simara Airport managed to handle its responsibilities well enough and came to the nation’s attention. Thus ended one of the most eventful episodes in my professional career.

Manandhar is a former Director-General of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN)

Published: 22-09-2018 07:34

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