Nepal suspends search for missing plane with 22 on board

The missing plane is operated by Tara Air which mainly flies Canadian-built Twin Otter planes. PHOTO: TARAAIR.COM

KATHMANDU (AFP, REUTERS) - A 43-year-old passenger plane with 22 people on board went missing in cloudy weather in Nepal on Sunday (May 29) and authorities suspended a search in difficult terrain as night fell.

“The search operation has been suspended for today because of the darkness,” police spokesperson Bishnu Kumar K.C told Reuters.

“We could not make any progress. The search will resume early tomorrow.”

Officials said bad weather and mountainous terrain had hampered their efforts to locate the plane, a De Havilland Canada DHC-6-300 Twin Otter operated by privately owned Tara Air.

State-owned Nepal Television said villagers had seen an aircraft on fire at the source of the Lyanku Khola River at the foot of the Himalayan mountain Manapathi, in a district bordering Tibet.

The plane took off in the morning for a 20-minute flight but lost contact with the control tower five minutes before it was due to land, government officials said. It was operated by Tara Air.

“Ground search teams are proceeding toward that direction,” Tara Air spokesperson Sudarshan Gartaula had earlier told Reuters, referring to the fire site.

Flight-tracking website Flightradar24 said the missing De Havilland Canada DHC-6-300 Twin Otter aircraft with registration number 9N-AET made its first flight in April 1979.

“One search helicopter returned to Jomsom due to bad weather without locating the plane,” CAAN said in a statement.

The weather office said there had been thick cloud cover in the Pokhara-Jomson area since the morning.

The airline said the plane was carrying four Indians, two Germans and 16 Nepalis, including three crew. Seven of the passengers were women, it said.

The plane took off from the tourist town of Pokhara, some 125km west of the capital, Kathmandu, for Jomsom, about 80km to the north-west, the officials said. 

The country’s weather office said there had been thick cloud cover in the Pokhara-Jomson area since the morning.

Police official Prem Kumar Dani said a land rescue-and-search team had been sent to the area near Mount Dhaulagiri, the world’s seventh-highest peak at 8,167m.

Poor record

Nepal’s aviation industry has long been plagued by poor safety due to insufficient training and maintenance.

The European Union has banned all Nepali airlines from its airspace over safety concerns.

The Himalayan country also has some of the world’s most remote and tricky runways, flanked by snow-capped peaks with approaches that pose a challenge for even accomplished pilots.

The weather can also change quickly in the mountains, creating treacherous flying conditions.

In March 2018, a US-Bangla Airlines plane crashed near Kathmandu’s notoriously difficult-to-approach international airport, killing 51 people.

The flight from the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka crash-landed and skidded into a football field where it burst into flames.

Twenty passengers miraculously escaped the burning wreckage but sustained serious injuries.

An investigation found that the captain suffered an emotional breakdown during the flight, distracting the freshly qualified co-pilot who was at the controls when it crashed.

The report said air traffic control also confused the two ends of the runway, but concluded this had no impact on the flight.

Pakistan Airlines

The accident was Nepal’s deadliest since 1992 when all 167 people aboard a Pakistan International Airlines plane died when it crashed on approach to Kathmandu airport.

Just two months earlier a Thai Airways aircraft crashed near the same airport, killing 113 people.

In 2019 three people died when a plane veered off the runway and hit two helicopters while taking off near Mount Everest.

The accident happened at Lukla airport which is the main gateway to the Everest region and is reputed to be one of the most difficult in the world for landing and take-off.

Also in 2019 Nepal’s tourism minister Rabindra Adhikari was among seven people killed when a helicopter crashed in the country’s hilly east.

This month Nepal’s second international airport opened at Bhairahawa, aiming to give Buddhist pilgrims from across Asia access to the Buddha’s birthplace at nearby Lumbini.

The US$76 million (S$104 million) project will ease pressure on the overburdened Kathmandu international airport.

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