Once more Nepal has hit the international headlines for all the wrong reasons. The tragic crash of a Bangladeshi airliner on Monday that killed 51 people has been trending worldwide. 

It was all the more devastating because of the loss of a dozen soon-to-be doctors. Most of them were young women whose families had invested heavily in the medical education of their children. The hopes of many of them, and indeed the nation, went up in flames this week. The tragedy was an uncanny repeat of an Indian Airlines DC-3 crash in 1956 in which 20 Nepali students returning home from boarding school were killed very close to where the Bangladeshi plane came down on Monday.

Amidst the debris at the airport were medical text books (see photograph). The bodies of dead MBBS students were taken to the very hospitals where they would have soon started work. A prominent Nepali surgeon, a noted Bangladeshi photographer, successful travel agents, and returning migrant workers were among the dead.

Like many accidents, this one need not have happened. Much larger wide-body jetliners had been landing at Kathmandu airport all day, and in fact surface visibility had actually improved when US-Bangla BS211 started its approach into Kathmandu after an 80-minute flight from Dhaka. 

As our transcript of the tape of the conversation between the Captain and air traffic controllers show, the pilots made a routine straight-in approach into runway 02 but then pulled up, probably because of misalignment with the threshold. Thereafter, there are indications that Capt Abid Sultan had poor situational awareness, and was confused about the direction of the two ends of the runway. His transmissions from the cockpit are slurred, unintelligible and contradictory.

We will have to await the final verdict of the investigation panel, and the testimony of Capt Sultan who survived. But what we do know so far is that after his missed approach, the Bombardier Dash 8 turboprop made three orbits over the airport to allow another aircraft to land from runway 02.
Throughout those nine minutes between 0824 and 0833 UTC, there is confusion between the air traffic controller and the captain about which runway to use, where to hold, and whether the runway is visible or not. Other pilots flying in the vicinity comment in Nepali that the Bangladeshi plane appears to be disoriented, and advise the tower to help it safely fly out.

While the plane was holding, one eyewitness reported seeing the plane flying unusually low and close to Kapan Monastery to the north of the airport. Another aviation expert who was driving along the Ring Road towards the airport witnessed the last 360 degree turn the plane made, and remembers watching in horror as the Dash 8 nearly clipped the top of the hangars near the domestic apron in a tight left turn. With landing gear down and full flaps, the plane then flew level past the control tower, over two domestic flights waiting at Taxiway E, overflew the runway, impacted and skidded across a football field used by airport security, broke apart and burst into flames.  

The Fire Station had held a drill at the exact spot when the plane came down, and rescue teams were quickly on hand. But the wreckage was too mangled and the fire too fierce for them to bring out many of the passengers trapped in their seats. 

Nepali Times spoke to many aviation experts who were in agreement that based on available evidence, the lack of familiarity with approach procedures contributed to confusion and distraction in the cockpit leading to the plane to stall and crash.  

However, this does not absolve Kathmandu airport management from blame as noted in another report in this issue. Although rescuers were promptly at the scene, videos show utter chaos at the crash site. Ground staff, airside ramp drivers, even baggage handlers can be seen running across an active taxiway and runway to the site. 

The gawkers were joined by the Prime Minister and his entourage which worsened the traffic jam and delayed ambulances. Passengers on other planes that landed just before the crash had to wait three hours for their luggage because the loaders had gone off to take pictures of the crash.

It is clear why some people want it to be ‘top secret’ because it exposes flaws in the air traffic controller’s handling of the incident. Not only are they not equipped with adequate English, there is a lack of clear, sharp instructions, and decisiveness to help an obviously befuddled crew. 

Nepal has a bad international reputation for air safety. Kathmandu always tops the list of ten worst airports in the world. Even though the accident was not so much the airport’s fault, Monday’s tragic loss of life once more highlighted how much further we have to go to revive confidence in Nepal’s aviation sector.  

 

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