Date: September 11, 2001. Time: 10:03 am. Place: Shanksville, Pennsylvania. United Airlines Flight 93 crashes into a field as some of its passengers try to wrest control of the plane from al-Qaeda terrorists who wanted to divert the jetliner to the Capitol Hill, the home of US Congress. It is hard to guess how many lives these brave passengers saved in the process. It is for this reason that on September 11 every year America mourns its unsung heroes aboard Flight 93.
On Friday, Sita Air Dornier 9N AHA-D228 aircraft bound for Lukla from Kathmandu crashed on the banks of Manohara River in Bhaktapur, only a minute after its 6:17 am takeoff, killing all 19 people, including three crew members, on board. Eyewitness accounts suggest pilot Bijaya Tandukar and co-pilot Take Singh Thapa diverted the largely out of control plane from its normal course, which would have resulted in a crash in the dense squatter settlement nearby. As the locals looked on, their eyes welled up in gratitude for the brave flight crew who might have saved the lives of many of their loved ones.
Later on Friday, the TIA Civil Aviation Office reported that the plane had been hit by a bird, resulting in an ‘unusual maneuvering’. In the days ahead, there are bound to be recriminations over the cause of the accident. Aviation experts have been warning for years that the roadside sekuwa restaurants pose a grave threat to aircraft frequenting the TIA. Meat products these eateries dispose of haphazardly attract birds like vultures and eagles that feed on carrion to the area. These birds often stray on the path of airborne planes.
The government will have to answer why no measures were taken to either resettle the restaurants at a safer distance from the TIA or to impose a strict waste disposal code, as had been suggested by experts. But these eateries are only a part of the problem. The production of the version of the Dornier that crashed on Friday was stopped 15 years ago. This means that aircraft from old Dornier batches are still operational in Nepal, leaving them at heightened risk of accidents as compared to newer (and safer) aircraft. Another important point to note here is that had the plane not been a Dornier, it is unlikely to have crashed from a bird hit. In the past few years, many aircraft have been hit by birds, without a major accident.
There seems to have been clear warning signs. The very first year Sita started its operation nine years ago with a single Dornier, it met with an accident at Lukla. Two years ago, there was another crash at the same airport. Thankfully, there were no casualties in either case. It isn’t clear what additional safety measures were taken in light of these accidents, or if any would at all have been effective. We believe the troubling frequency of its crashes makes a strong case for phasing out of Dorniers from Nepali skies. The risks are just not worth taking. Another preventive measure could be better waste management in the vicinity of the TIA. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has announced that measures would be taken to make Nepali skies safer.
Surely, a probe committee will follow. But unless words are matched by actions, Nepali skies will remain unsafe. All pilots who risk their lives to ease the movement of people and goods through the treacherous Nepali terrain are our unsung heroes. None of them needs to lose their lives for us to celebrate their immense contribution