Treading the skies

Features Issue 132 Nov, 2012
Text by Aayush Nirola / Photo: Maheshwor Bhakta Shrestha

Captain Keshab Krishna Shrestha is not yet a captain, he is “very small”, as he recalls, and listening to All India Radio in his Jochhen home. It is 1947. It’s a white, sunny day in Kathmandu. Suddenly he is aware of a loud, continuous hum coming from somewhere. “My first impression was that maybe it was the radio itself, making noises”. A commotion starts in the street below, people are running and shouting at the same time. What has appeared in the sky?

“We started running all the way to Gauchara. A big crowd had gathered and there were policemen guarding the area. People were saying, ‘what a big thing that is, it’s big as a house, how could it have flown?’ Some of them were praying, it must have been god, even I had my hands folded. Because we kids were a bit mischievous and went through the crowd, we were given some sticks of beating too,” he tells me, turning his arms around to show where he was hit. Shrestha had heard some of the elders guffawing about having seen the flying things. “‘Too many times!’, they would tell us. They had studied in Calcutta, but we had of course never seen anything like it, in the sky it was like a white, silvery ring.”   

Maheswor Bhakta Shrestha, in his book Nepalese Aviation and Tourism quotes a distant article from the January 16th, 1969 edition of the Rising Nepal, by a Keith De Folo, that relates to this moment. It was the first plane that had caressed Nepali skies, manned by it reads, “a lone pilot who spluttered over the mountains, dipped into Kathmandu valley, circled Tundikhel and gently glided to a halt” in Gauchara.

The same Gauchara (Sanskrit for grazing grounds) where the lone pilot had stopped the engines of his magic machine would in the decades to come, see its days of grass turn into concrete, as buildings and towers rose around it. And it would see a strip of its land transform into a sleek, black topped runway where airplanes of tremendous shapes and sizes, like never imagined even by the Calcutta-educated and plane-experienced elders of the Captain’s childhood, grind to regular halts manned by a sophisticated system, as the grazing ground itself would be registered to the Tribhuwan Airport and further in future, the Tribhuwan International Airport. And the same Gauchara would come full circle when Lava Khanal, retired Operations Supervisor at the NAC, leaning over towards me from across the sofa in his living room, would compare the national carrier once again to a grazing ground for the corrupt, in deep frustration. 

Early days
In the January of 1950 a group of foreign ministers of all the Commonwealth nations met in Colombo, Srilanka and drew out a resolution whose primary focus adhered to the development of human resources for collective good. It was under this decision that B.K Shrestha, tall and very young, got a rare opportunity to go to India for pilot’s training. The Colombo Plan had provided for three seats in all. Of those who go there only Shrestha was allowed to train in the 5th Flight Training course at Allahbad’s Civil Aviation Training Center.

“B.K. had completed his SLC by 1950. He went to Calcutta in 1952, by 54/55 he was already employed at the Indian Airline base there. At the time he was in training, I was in Bombay studying at St. Mary’s. By 1959 I also completed the pilot course and in October I came with BK and RC (Ramesh Chandra Upadhyay) to Nepal and applied to fly for the newly established Royal Nepal.” Captain Keshab Krishna Shrestha remembers the end of the fifties and one of the first pilots who flew for RNAC, his uncle and friend Badri Krishna Shrestha. “By the way you must be hungry, hai? What do you want to have?” he asks me in English. “Come on, toast? You want toast?”

I awkwardly consent. Otherwise I am comfortable on his spacious leather couch, and the conversation is building well. I had never met a pilot before, much less someone from an era of which I only know what I was taught in my social studies class in school, which basically covered, the revolution of 1950, the king’s takeover and the panchayat. As I listen to the Captain’s story I realize that the fifties obviously had many parallel histories, one of which I am listening to and which belongs to the pioneering “bush fliers” of the RNAC who back in the days chased the rough and wild contours of Seti Gandaki, pursued quite a few adventures and misadventures, took on binges and also sat back together on milder evenings over a long and drawn out drink. Captain Shrestha himself was one of the first generation pilots at RNAC. Now is in his late years, he is an unimposing man, short in stature but well built, long out of service, and long into life but with a booming voice and a sharp memory. My toast arrives. He begins again. Behind him a flimsy, cream curtain is splashed with the bright fluid references of morning light reflected from an open aquarium grounded in the verandah.

“The first pilot who flew RNAC was Bob W. Chater, actually Chatterjee, but he studied in London I think. The clean shaved Sardar, T S Janlat was co-captain. P.K Som was the radio officer and someone, I think it was Puri who was the first steward at the airlines. Maharaja of Mayurbhanj was the General Manager.” Upon their first application for a job at the airline, the aforementioned trio would be rejected by the Maharaja who had brought his own crew from India. At the time Ganesh Man Singh, Minister for Transportation, Communication and Public Works was the corporation’s chairman. They appealed to the stern minister who then sent out a message to the Maharaja telling him to take the applicants. “The Maharaja replied, ‘refer back to the minister to translate the note into English’. Ganesh Man Singh called an emergency meeting of the cabinet the same night and nationalized the airline,” Shrestha recounts. The Maharaja was out.

The Maharaja of Mayurbhanj has one of the earliest imprints in the history of RNAC, and thus in the story of Nepalese civil aviation. Lava Khanal who had worked under him for sometime at the airlines remembers him as a soft spoken disciplinarian who looked like a film star. “He was very stylish, like Dev Anand. I think he was an in-law to king Mahendra. The 1950 revolution had already happened and the king was cautious about people’s sentiments, which is why he couldn’t give permission to his relative to run a private company here in Nepal and that too in aviation. He finally decided upon a public corporation.” Under the agreement, Royal Nepal Airline Corporation would be contracted out to the Maharaja and he would hold 49% of its shares for which he had reputedly asked an uncle for some 75000 rupees in IC (Indian Currency) and collected about the same amount from his own account.

The first scheduled flight for RNAC happened on July 4th of 1958. The plane was a Dakota, legendarily rugged, “a collection of parts flying in loose formation” that transformed commercial as well as military flying all over the world since its inception in 1935. The plane made another flight to Pokhara and Bhairawa the day after and to Biratnagar on the 6th. The nationalization was implemented in October, 1959. Within the next four months the flight route would expand to Patna and Calcutta. US Air would add three more aircrafts and RNAC looked forward to decades of prosperity and growth driven by the motive of expanding air transport for the development of the country. “From the sixties to the nineties was a high growth period for Nepal’s civil aviation. The number of airports grew from four to forty and Tribhuwan airport turned international,” Maheswor Shrestha comments. During the early days Lahures (informal name for Nepali soldiers enrolled in foreign armies; the term lahure refers to Lahore in Pakistan where soldiers were selected from) returning home from service in British and Indian armies filled most of the passenger seats of the Dakotas. “There were hardly any businessmen or such. The lahures came and finished all their earnings at the Thakali bhattis,” Captain Shrestha reminisces. As the routes, fleet and flight schedules expanded, the market boomed, tourists arrived, businessmen traveled and a flying culture gradually took shape.

Air France and thereafter
In the July of 1970, RNAC called upon experts from Air France under a program to improve management and they took over most of the managerial positions from thereon to 1973. “Everybody at the Directorial level was French. There is no mistaking their contribution to the development of aviation in Nepal.” Captain DR Nirola is from the third/fourth generation of pilots, who joined the carrier in 1969 and worked for the same until the early nineties. “The credit for expanding air services to much of the rural areas of Nepal goes to the French. They introduced the Twin Otters to our skies. They also extended our international routes from India, East Pakistan and Dhaka to Bangkok and Hongkong with the purchase of a Boeing 727. They were quick in their decision making, because they didn’t have to ask anywhere for considerations.” Nirola particularly remembers Robert Rieffel, who was the General Manager then. “Even when the French went back, I’d see Rieffel riding his cycle sometimes”. Rieffel had stayed on in Nepal and is remembered as a “Nepal-lover” who wrote the classic tourist guide book Namastey Nepal during his time here.

After the French, RNAC continued to enjoy prosperity. The Supersonic Concorde landed in our international airport in the winter of 1987 with 63 passengers and 9 crew members onboard. So did the Air Canada Jumbo Boeing 747 a month later on November, “dispelling all doubts as to the capability of the international airport”. Everybody agrees that the late eighties and the early nineties was the golden period for Nepalese civil aviation. Lava Khanal was in Delhi at the time and part of his job involved getting No Objection letter from Indian authorities for RNAC’s additional per week flights. “They would smile upon seeing me and tease ‘Arrey, what magic do you do? Go, go to Badrinaath, travel’, those days we could travel on account of our jobs. We’d talk some more, and I returned with the No Objection letters, I’d ask for nine, ten flights in addition to the normal week schedule. Indian Airlines just had six flights per week”.

Captain Nirola also remembers those years clearly. “You couldn’t get a seat on a RNAC flight in those days. People came to me and said, ‘Captain saab, get us a couple of tickets’, and that would be a big favor. There was always talk about why RNAC didn’t expand its fleet. In those days the maintenance of the RNAC fleet was done by Royal Brunei and sometimes their engineers would be onboard. They would be surprised at seeing how full our flights were. They said to me, ‘Our planes are never ever this occupied, we are paid in dollars and you in rupees, how is it that you earn so much lesser than us?’ There was even rumors about RNAC being at a loss. Where did all that money go? Even if Brunei were a rich country, its airline needed to pay its staff from its own accounts, RNAC should have had millions and more in its savings.”

Liberalization of the skies
Nepal stepped onto liberalization on the heels of its southern neighbour in 1991 and our skies became a free playground for competition. Something crucial happened here. Aviation is a business that requires extensive experience to run, from pilots to ground staff to even people in marketing. The only such people available in Nepal worked at the old national carrier and that’s where everybody went looking. “It was like a wave, people leaving RNAC. Captain Nirola himself went to Necon Air, the third private airline company to operate in Nepal and the only one of those early players which stayed firm and gained immense popularity for about a decade.

Many starters couldn’t hold on. “Normally, airlines fold in five years,” Maheswor Shrestha comments, “It’s the five years disease. Normally in that time, an aircraft has flown ten thousand hours and needs overhaul, such complete maintenance can cost a lot of money. Airlines save some part of their income from each hour of flying for just that. But then, some would think, why put this money in the bank? So they invest, some here some there. Like Cosmic invested in Ying Yang motor, Agni in housing. Investments can fail and that is one reason.” The other reason is that airlines begin to generate profit in four to five years. “And then the fighting starts,” Shrestha continues.

Necon Air battled out the five year disease, but it went down anyways. Its demise however was seemingly abrupt. Till about 2000, it was buying aircrafts (two ATR-42), until 2002, its domestic passenger flow at TIA was 2,77,378 (in 1999 it was 3,59,066), impressive compared to Buddha Air’s 2,03,151 or Yeti’s 55,276. Then suddenly in 2003 this number comes down to 56,704 and the same year it shuts shop. Necon’s internal management was also going through the motions and many believe Anup Rana’s departure from the organization was one of the reasons that the airlines went down. D.R. Nirola explains, “Seemingly, a group had already begun forming. At one point I was called in by some board members and asked, ‘Do you think if Anup goes out, Necon will run as it is?’ I told them that we were in a system and being as such it runs the organization and not one single person. Then one airline was run by two persons in parallel. Anup Rana was the Executive Chairman and Dipmani Raj Bhandari was the Managing Director.  In ’99 or 2000 Anup left because the solution would have required him to sign a MoU whereupon he had to ask the board for decisions involving certain amount of money. He read it, put the paper down and said he couldn’t work where he would have to ask the board to decide on every little amount of money. Then I don’t know what happened, there was also some bad luck with the Avro crash in Thankot. The public thought that Necon only flew old aircrafts and after the crash we had no way to reply to that. The ATR arrived, they said it was at loss but the occupancy was pretty good”.

Nirola was also at the airline’s board for sometime, he left it at about the same time that Rana did. He tells me he had no idea that the airline was closing. “I had about eight thousand shares of my own, I had no inkling that it was folding. We heard outside, banks saying, ‘Necon is at cliff’s edge’, but we didn’t take it seriously, we were at dark”.

At this point, RNAC is way past its golden years and coughing out its customers while going through bad management. Maheswor Shrestha consents, “After ’93, RNAC took a different turn. Management changed rapidly, many people resigned and went elsewhere, the cream of the workforce left the organization or were dismissed, two aircrafts which were sent for maintenance didn’t return”. Captain Kul Bahadur Limbu was the Managing Director at the Corporation from 2007 to 2011. In four years he was dismissed twice, he took to the courts and won, with the total number of cases regarding this and other matters during his tenure coming to six. “If we look at the records for RNAC after 2000, there is nothing but scandal”, he points out. Indeed the only change that has happened in the airlines since seems to be in its name, with Royal bowing out to the latest people’s revolution and leaving only Nepal Airlines Corporation. “If you talk about buying an aircraft, four/five things need to come to place, and to make them happen you need to do a lot of lobbying. And if you look at the organization, it has the same staff structure when it had twenty one aircrafts and when it has four. This is not how a business is run”, Limbu says.       

He believes that there is now immense prospect in the country, as has been demonstrated by the private and foreign airliners, feeding on the surge of foreign employment travel. While this doesn’t help tourism as had been originally designed when civil aviation was conceived in our country, it helps the air business. “NAC should complement the domestic market and compete on the international foray. Its good days for the airline industry”, he ends.