Old Aircraft, Tough Terrain — This is Why So Many Plane Crashes Happen in Nepal

A report said 914 people have died in air crashes in Nepal since the first disaster was recorded in August 1955.

5 min read

Video Producer: Shohini Bose 
Video Editors: Mohd. Irshad Alam, Abhishek Sharma 

At least 68 people were killed on Sunday, 15 January, when a Nepali passenger plane with 72 people on board, including five Indians, crashed into a river gorge while landing at a newly-opened airport in the resort city of Pokhara.

Sunday’s crash was the worst plane accident in 30 years, officials told Reuters.

In a tweet after the crash, Nepal's Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane pointed out that Nepal's transport safety record in the air as well as on roads has so far been "unacceptable".

But why are aviation accidents so frequent in Nepal? And what makes flying in the country so risky? Keep reading.


A Dubious History of Aircraft Crashes

A report said 914 people have died in air crashes in Nepal since the first disaster was recorded in August 1955.

The Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla. 

(Photo: IStock)

According to a report by the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), 914 people have died in aircraft crashes in the country since the first recorded disaster in August 1955.

The only other incidents in which more people were killed than on Sunday, 15 January, took place:

  • On 31 July 1992 when a Thai Airways Airbus A310 crashed in Ghyangphedi in central Nepal, killing 113 on board.

  • In September 1992, when a Pakistan International airlines crashed on approach to Kathmandu and left 167 people dead.

The Yeti Airlines tragedy in Pokhara on Sunday is the 104th crash to ever take place in Nepali skies. Below are some other recent accidents:

  • In March 2018, a Bombardier Q400 operated by US-Bangla Airlines crash-landed in Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu while returning from Dhaka, killing 51 of the 71 passengers and crew.

  • In May 2022, 16 Nepalis, four Indians, and two Germans were killed when a De Havilland Canada DHC-6-300 Twin Otter aircraft crashed soon after taking off from Pokhara.

Which raises the question — what makes Nepal so uniquely dangerous for air travel?


Treacherous Terrain 

The Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu is located in a narrow valley 1,338 metres above sea level. This means planes have relatively little space to turn and navigate.

And, while Tribhuvan is hard to land at, Nepal's remote airstrips have it worse, since they're primarily designed to only handle aircraft capable of making short take-offs and landings.

"The location of short airstrips that are only capable of handling short take off and landing aircraft, combined with difficult locations, and unpredictable mountain weather make flying in Nepal's skies very challenging."
Hemant Arjyal, Aviation Analyst

A 2019 report by Nepal's own Civil Aviation Authority highlighted that Nepal's "hostile topography" is part of the huge challenge that pilots face.

For instance, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in the country's Lukla area is often dubbed as the world's most dangerous airport, with a single runway that angles down toward a valley below.

A report said 914 people have died in air crashes in Nepal since the first disaster was recorded in August 1955.

A view of the landing strip at the Tenzing Hillary airport from the cockpit of an aircraft. 

(Photo: IStock)


Bad Weather

Bad weather compounds the problem. According to Nepali Times, between 1952 and 2022, a majority of aircraft crashes were caused by planes flying into mountains hidden in clouds, known to air crash investigators as Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT).

The analysis of plane crash data from the past 60 years by the news website shows that 92 percent of air crash fatalities in Nepal have been a result of controlled flight into terrain, usually caused by inclement weather, clouds, and low visibility.

Arjyal adds that many accidents in the past involved "flouting of rules by getting into cloud."

"Visual Flight Rules, which state that pilots should only fly in skies clear enough to see where they're going, strictly forbid this practice, But for low flying aircraft in Nepal's skies, it is practically impossible to strictly fly visual all the time, "he added.  


Ancient Aircraft

A lack of investment in the aircraft industry also adds to flying risks. For instance, older aircraft don't have modern radar, and most planes that ply these skies are of the older variant.

According to flight tracking website Flightradar24, the Yeti Airlines ATR-72500 aircraft involved in the crash was 15 years old.

Before Sunday's crash, Nepal had witnessed a horrific crash in May 2022, when a Tara Air aircraft crashed shortly after take-off from Pokhara International Airport. The plane involved in the accident was over 40 years old and was not equipped with the technology it needed to provide the pilot with vital information about their surroundings.

The condition of the aviation sector in the country is such that all airline carriers from Nepal have been refused permission to operate air services to the European Union since 2013 due to safety concerns.


The Role of The Civil Aviation Authority

Another particularly overlooked fact is the dual role that the country's civil aviation authority plays.

CAAN is both the service provider and regulator in Nepal. That has engendered a conflict of interest, especially when it comes to safety regulations. 

As a service provider, it runs two international airports – Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, and the newly opened Gautam Buddha International Airport in Bhairahawa. However, its position as both the service provider AND the regulator allows it to take some very concerning actions.

For example, the existing system allows the director general of the Civil Aviation Authority to issue tenders for multi-billion-dollar projects.

The same person also has the job of overseeing compliance with the project and aviation regulations governing the issuance of licenses to airlines and crews, which could lead to a potential conflict of interest.

Which is also what Nepal's political leaders have stated.


Since 2009, the European Commission and the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) have urged Nepal to split the aviation regulator with a clear demarcation of its powers and responsibilities because its dual functions gave rise to a conflict of interest.

While nothing has changed in this regard so far, the government is insistent that the passage of a bill to separate these two bodies is a priority.

"Making this split happen quickly is among the promises that Rastriya Swatantra Party made to the people of Nepal, and a high priority for our party," Dr Arnico Panday, advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Home Affairs, told The Quint.

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Topics:  Nepal   pokhara   Yeti Airlines 

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