Severe turbulence, low visibility: UAE-based pilots explain challenges of flying to Nepal

The comments come a day after 70 people were killed in a crash in the Nepalese town of Pokhara in the country’s worst plane crash in over three decades


Nasreen Abdulla

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Tue 17 Jan 2023, 12:34 PM

Last updated: Wed 18 Jan 2023, 11:50 AM

Rugged terrain and unstable weather conditions have always posed a challenge to pilots when flying to Nepal, according to aviation experts in the UAE.

The comments come a day after 70 people were killed in a crash in the Nepalese town of Pokhara in the country’s worst plane crash in over three decades. The accident happened just a short distance away from the newly opened Pokhara international airport.

“The extreme weather in the Himalayan region plays a crucial role,” said Hans-Georg Rabacher, aviation expert, pilot and author of the book 'Flying Answers From Inside the Cockpit'. “Due to the position in close proximity of high mountains, pilots have to deal with severe turbulence or low visibility. Abrupt changes in weather can often occur.”

Hans-Georg Rabacher
Hans-Georg Rabacher

Nepal is home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains and has one of the most rugged terrains in the world.

UAE-based pilot A.A. said that flying to the Tribhuvan International airport in Kathmadu in itself was a challenge. “It requires experienced pilots who receive special training for that particular airport,” he said. “Pokhara, on the other hand, has a short runway where only smaller aircraft go, and is also known to be extremely challenging.”

Geographical position

According to another UAE-based pilot S.L., the location has placed limitations on the systems used at the airport.

“Most modern airports use a precision approach system called ILS,” he said. “It helps to centre the plane on the runway laterally and vertically before landing using instruments. This ensures that even in weather conditions with almost zero visibility, the pilot can land with minimal issues. However, Nepal cannot use this because of its mountainous terrain. They use a slightly older system called VOR. It can provide reasonably good lateral and vertical information. So usually, when we get to that position, we disconnect autopilot and land.”

S.L. says the real danger is when weather conditions are unstable, which is extremely common in the country. “If you are in positions and you don’t see the runway, you go around,” he said. “Either you hold until the weather improves or you go to an alternative airport. Sometimes pilots think they have seen the runway when weather is bad but they haven’t. A couple of years ago, a Turkish aircraft crash-landed because of this same reason.”

It was in 2015 that a passenger jet of Turkish airline skidded off a foggy runway after multiple attempts to land. Although no one was injured, the incident caused all flights to and from Nepal to be cancelled for four days.

Rabacher supported this. “If the weather exceeds some limitation, flights are often cancelled at short notice or even delayed,” he said. “Pilots who are in the air have to rely on any information. But the operation of air traffic control in Nepal is considered to be inaccurate. The countries of the European Union, for example, have blacklisted all Nepalese airlines because they consider the Nepalese aviation authority to be too lax.”

Pokhara incident

According to Rabacher, the weather or the airport at Pokhara did not seem to be factors in the crash. “Pokhara International Airport is brand new and opened on January 1, 2023, using a state-of-the-art technology landing system,” he said. “Furthermore, pilots’ descent with a standard glide path, as there is no steep approach required. A short video by an eyewitness allows conclusions to be drawn about an aircraft stall. A technical defect could also have been the cause of the accident.”

S.L. also supported the theory of a stall. “According to the video, the angle of the aircraft looked like it was low on speed. The nose looks very high. So it is likely it was a stall but we will have to wait for information from the black box to know for sure.”

The stall is a when a plane experiences a sudden decrease in lift, causing the plane to sink. “Pilots have just split seconds to make a decision when faced with an abnormal situation,” S.L. said. “It is important to pre-plan and be ahead of the aircraft but that is not always possible and sometimes, it leads to unfortunate incidents like these.”


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