Flying the Nepali Skies

Experience Issue 185 Apr, 2017

Travel into the past with reminiscences from Nepal's early aviation years.

The first time I flew on an airplane was only when I was a teenager. It was the 15-minute flight from Simara, in the Terai, to Kathmandu, the capital, on a Twin Otter. At the time, Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation (RNAC) ruled the Nepali skies, it being the sole airline operating in the country, and it had a fleet of these 19-seater Twin Otters and some Avros (I think they are 40-seaters) that plied throughout Nepal; ferrying people and cargo, and playing a vital role in the absence of an adequate road network.

Yes, indeed, RNAC was one of the most important institutions of the nation, but its virtual monopoly brought along some mighty big drawbacks. After my first flying experience, it so happened that I took on a job that entailed a great deal of travel, and so I found myself on one Twin Otter or an Avro every other month, sometimes even two or three times in a month. By and by, I became such a seasoned flier that I often reached the airport only after the other passengers were checked in and had gone through the security gates.

However, being checked in and security-checked was no guarantee that our flight would take off on schedule, or if at all! Many has been the time when I have checked in (say around 10:00 a.m.) and had to wait for hours and hours with no RNAC staff being able to say for sure when we would be flying, or again, if at all! So, visualize in your mind, if possible, throngs of passengers, including me, milling around the counters at the domestic terminal from early morning, and finally being told at around 5:30 p.m. that our flight had been cancelled. “Bad weather;” was the most common (popular) reason given, “Mechanical problem,” was the second.

This was such a common occurrence—the cancelling of flights after waiting for hours—that RNAC soon came to be known as Royal Nepal Always Cancels. No name could have been more appropriate, take it from me, as seasoned a RNAC flier as any. One or two times I did lose my temper (who wouldn’t in my situation?) and initiated a small revolt with similarly angry co-passengers at the airport, cursing the airline, the airline manager, the check in staff, the pilot. We never believed in their excuses about the weather being bad, or about mechanical problems; we had, at least I had, faced such a situation too many times in the past. Once, I even came to know that the pilot was the reason for a flight being cancelled to Simara from Kathmandu. Apparently, since it was already evening, the pilot would have to stay the night there, and he didn’t want to!

The pilots were the kingpins, no doubt about that, there being so few qualified ones in those days. And thus, many of the flights’ departures depended to a large extent on when they would arrive at the airport. The ground staff had to bear the brunt of irate passengers’ wrath day after day, week after week, month after month. So much so, that most had become callused and did not seem to be at all bothered by all the turmoil going on around them. Nevertheless, it must be said that there were also some employees who empathized with the passengers’ plight, and went out of their way to make the best of the situation. Of course, they couldn’t do much, it was out of their hands, and often, and they had no recourse other than to make themselves as invisible as possible.

And frequent travelers like me, what else could we do but curse and lament? We had no choice than to fly RNAC. Now, leaving aside all this, let me relate an interesting incident. Once, the Twin Otter that was to fly us from Simara to Kathmandu had some mechanical trouble (real one) after it landed in Simara. We, the waiting passengers, were told that a team of mechanics would be coming from Kathmandu, and so we should wait. An hour or so later, a nine-seater Pilatus Porter landed, and the mechanics got down to their work. It was already early evening, and the Pilatus pilot asked if anyone wanted to fly on his plane. I immediately said yes, although most others were reluctant, seeing the small size of the plane. I, on the other hand, rushed to take the seat next to the pilot’s. This was my chance to be a co-pilot, of sorts. 
By and by, some more people took their seats, and the tall and lanky buccaneer-type mustachioed pilot started down the runway. We took off smoothly, and everything was cool. Then, we approached some really big hills, and I watched the pilot crane his head this side and that side, probably to have a better judgment about the height we were flying at. I, too, craned my head to look outside on my side, the hills were pretty close, and I had a few moments of deep anxiety. The pilot, however, seemed confident enough, and swung his plane between the hills with a practiced hand. Soon, the valley opened out to us and we landed safely at the capital’s airport.

Some years later, I witnessed a Pilatus Porter plummet down to earth minutes after taking off. It happened at the Biratnagar airport. I was waiting for my flight to Kathmandu, and the Pilatus was flying to a place called Taplejung in the eastern hills. The airport was crowded; I noticed one man making frantic overtures to the RNAC staff at the counter where the Taplejung passengers were being checked in. Seemed that he was the chief district officer of that place, and he had to go there urgently. Problem was, all the nine seats were taken. He made calls to some big shots in Biratnagar, and eventually got his seat, at the loss of a lesser passenger. I watched the Pilatus take off, but as it was banking to gain height, it just fell down to earth like a stone.

I ran to the spot, maybe a kilometer away, and saw the remains of the burning plane, as well as of the passengers, of whom only the intestines remained. Plane fuel is highly combustible, all the nine passengers and the pilot died on the spot. This incident gave me much food for thought. Where people were all hustling and bustling to fly home a few minutes earlier, now only the intestines remained, and those too became fodder for the flames soon after. The vagary of life!
As the years rolled along, newer airlines began to fly. My favorite was Necon Airways, not only due to its fleet of only Avros, but also due to their always being on time. This was such a blessing after having to endure the harrowing delays and cancellations of the RNAC experience. I became a regular Necon flier. They used to have a lottery on board, and despite the fact that I was such a frequent flier, I never won the Rs.1000 prize money. I swear, twice, the guys next to me won. I took solace in the saying, ‘lucky in love, unlucky in gambling’.

Years afterwards, one of the Necon planes crashed near Thankot, with everybody on board perishing. They included some of the crew whom I had become quite familiar with, and I tell you, I felt really very sad to see their photos on the obituary the next day. Actually, before ending this rambling on flying the skies of Nepal, I must also mention that, in the years gone by, hardly a year went by without some adverse incident or the other involving one airline or another. Maybe the blame has to be put on the fact that the planes were quite aged. Thankfully, now we have airlines proudly boasting brand new fleets, and although the skies have much, much, more traffic than before, adverse events are few and far between. Yes, one can now say that flying in Nepal is as safe as anywhere else in the world today.