Hills, valleys and wings

May 16, 2012, 07:10 IST | Hemal Ashar

A recent deadly plane crash in Nepal , throws the spotlight on the challenging terrain and vagaries of weather that can test the best

The terrain in the mountain kingdom of Nepal and weather conditions in the country nestled in the Himalayas, a haven for trekkers and hikers make flying particularly testing for even the most skilled of pilots. Says Capt. Anand Joshi, “I suppose ‘challenging’ is an appropriate word, because of certain factors like the terrain in Nepal and the weather.” This Mumbai-based Capt. explained, “Because of the high-altitude, some of the navigation aids do not work in this terrain. The layperson must understand that you have two kinds of flying: instrument flying and visual flying. Some of the instruments may not have that range, so, you have to do a lot of visual flying, in Nepal.”

Jomsom, Nepal: Onlookers and rescuers are seen near the wreckage of an Agni Air Dornier Do 228 aircraft plane crash site in Jomsom, some 300 km west of Kathmandu. 

Talking about Jomsom, specifically, Capt. Joshi who, as a former Royal Nepal Airlines pilot has landed at the Jomson strip, several times says that flying is more demanding, also, because of the weather which can be very deceptive. “Near the Jomsom, specifically, the winds are very, very strong. There are nearly, though I may not be spot on, 40 airfields in Nepal and I can say that Jomsom is one of the toughest. Two very high mountain ranges, the Annapurna mountain range, which is about 26,000 feet, and the Dhaulagiri range, which would also be approximately the same height flank it. The Jomsom also has an elevation of approximately 9,000 feet. It is located in a valley, between two mountains. Also, this is a fairly narrow valley, and with turbulence it takes a lot of dexterity to control the aircraft.” Besides topography and turbulence, the runway too is, “very short,” says Capt. Joshi elaborating that the pilot needs to be especially skilled when landing on a short runway.

An Agni Air plane crash survivor looks on after receiving medical attention at a hospital in Pokhara, some 200 km west of Kathmandu. pics/AFP

The picture he paints is of breathtaking beauty. Jomsom, cradled into a green, lush valley with two imposing mountain ranges standing sentinel on its sides. And periodically, a little plane emerges from the cloud cover to land on a little airstrip in that valley below. Sometimes, though that picture postcard scene goes awry, like it did on Monday, May 14, when pilgrims who were enroute to the famous Muktinath Temple, to keep their date with God, tragically met their Maker in a very different way.

Danish couple Andrees Rosch (r) and Emily Jorcensen, survivors of Agni air crash in Jomsom, pose as they recuperate at the Manipal Hospital in Pokhara on May 15, 2012 

Capt. (Retd.) Minoo Wadia, Founder-President of the Federation of Indian Pilots, who has flown extensively in the North East, especially in the 1960s, says there are some similarities in conditions and topography between Nepal and the area — lots of mountains, airfields in valleys and strong winds. “We have a lot of military aircraft in these places, very, very few civilians flights. You need loads of experience to fly there, it is certainly not routine flying. Usually, when people train for flying, it is in fair weather conditions, but certain places have very specific, unique, weather conditions. In the North East especially, there are very strong winds and you experience a lot of down drafts. I have seen aircraft where the wings have broken, some have crashed literally on top of a hill.” Capt. Wadia, also recalls a couple of very experienced, foreign pilots who were taken aback at seeing these airfields, common in the North East. “I remember one of them saying, is this an airfield? It’s a bloody football field,” he ends.

Sound of Moo-sic
The hills are alive with the sound of moo-sic. Well, literally. Mumbai businessman, Kushal A remembers flying from the capital Kathmandu and landing at Chitwan in Nepal, years ago. Says Kushal, “It was a small plane, with six passengers and one air hostess. Our bags were put in the nose of the plane. When we were landing, I blinked in disbelief. It looked like a field, rather than an airfield. The plane landed and we deplaned to cows grazing all around us! They were kept out by ropes on the perimeter, so they could not come close to the aircraft. All of us had to take our luggage ourselves and walk to a single-storey, small building which was the airport. We could still see the cows as we walked. Soon, I saw the plane taking off, as the cows continued to graze. I laugh about it now, but, I remember some passengers looking a little shaken at the experience.”

Famous: The Muktinath Temple

The tragedy
A plane, operated by Agni Air, with 21 people on board crashed after it was unable to land in a mountainous area of Nepal on Monday. Reports state that the plane was very close to the airport at Jomsom when it crashed. Six people have survived, including a Danish couple, the air-hostess and three Indians. Jomsom is the gateway to Muktinath Temple and is about a six hours' walk from the airport, in the Annapurna range of mountains.

Jomsom Airport
Jomsom Airport is an airport serving Jomsom, a town in the Mustang District of the Dhaulagiri Zone in Nepal. It is known as one of the world's most dangerous airfields and is a particular favourite of flight simulator fans. It serves as the gateway to Muktinath temple, which is a popular pilgrimage for Nepalis and Indians. The airport sits at an elevation of 8,800 feet (2,682 m) above mean sea level. It has one asphalt paved runway designated 06/24 which measures 531 by 19 meters.

Muktinath Temple
Muktinath is a sacred place both for Hindus and Buddhists located in Muktinath Valley at an altitude of 3,710 meters at the foot of the Thorong La mountain pass (part of the Himalayas), Mustang district, Nepal. The site is close to the village of Ranipauwa, which sometimes mistakenly is called Muktinath as well. The Hindus call the sacred place Mukti Kshetra, which literally means the 'place of salvation'. 

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