KATHMANDU, SEP 28 – A Sita Air plane crash ed on the banks of the Manohara river in Bhaktapur district on Friday morning, killing all 19 on board.
The Dornier aircraft came down and burst into flames shortly after it took off from Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) for Lukla, the gateway to the Everest region.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) said seven Nepalis, including three crew members, seven British and five Chinese nationals were on the flight.
According to the General Manager at the TIA, Ratish Chandra Lal Suman, the aircraft was cleared for Lukla, 136-km east of Kathmandu, at 6:17 am by the Air Traffic Controller (ATC). The aircraft made its last contact with the ATC at 6:18 am, reporting a ‘bird-hit.’ The plane crash ed 30 seconds later.
The pilot-in-command, Bijay Tandukar, was not able to inform the ATC on his plan to divert the aircraft back to TIA for an emergency landing. “The crash location shows the pilot had diverted the plane from the south-west to the east in his bid to land at the TIA,” said a CAAN field staff. The aerial distance of the crash site is about 500 metres east from the runway.
This is the second major crash in the country in the past five months. In May, another Dornier aircraft belonging to Agni Air crashed in Jomsom, Mustang, killing 15 on board, while six people survived the ordeal.
According to the initial findings of the CAAN, a vulture collided with the right engine of the aircraft, which damaged one of its two engines. The aircraft was at around 4,440 ft, around 50 ft up from the runway, when the bird hit it.
Airport officials recovered the dead vulture that was split into three pieces at the southern tip of the runway from where the plane had taken off.
While the ‘bird-hit’ triggered the crash, a combination of factors seem to have led to the actual crash, aviation officials and pilots said. Only a couple of minutes after being airborne, the aircraft was only beginning to gather speed and was still at a relatively low altitude. When an aircraft makes a near U-turn at such a low speed, it is thrown off balance, just like a bicycle or a motorcycle in low speed, resulting in what is called “poor banking angle” in the aviation parlance.
“A sustained stall seems to have made the plane take a nose-dive,” said Suresh Acharya, joint-secretary at the Ministry of Culture Tourism and Civil Aviation, the government pointman on aviation.
“Panic-stricken, the pilot may have made a steep turn to the left to land at the TIA from the north without maintaining a required radius, even as the plane was powered by one engine (left),” said Acharya.
Some suspect excess load on the aircraft that aggravated the situation. A statement issued by CAAN after the accident, which could be one possible line of enquiry for the fact-finding body that’s been formed.
An official on the ground said traffic controllers noticed the aircraft making unusual manoeuvres right after take-off. It was not immediately clear whether it was the collision alone or other factors that contributed to the “unusual turbulence” as noticed from the ground.
“We have taken the ‘load factor’ seriously and the fact-finding committee will most certainly look into the matter,” said Acharya. “The exact cause of the crash is still unclear. The bird strike may not be the sole reason behind the crash.”
Deputy Superintendent of Police BP Dhakal said all the bodies were found piled at the cockpit when rescue and security officials doused the blazing fire, pointing at another disturbing possibility that the passengers had either not tied their safety belts or were huddled together close to the cockpit in a panic.
The rescue team found the cockpit completely mangled, perhaps after the impact on the ground, and it took them at least five minutes to break it open and take out the bodies of the pilots. One of the pilots had his head missing, again possibly due to the impact. All other bodies have their parts intact, though charred beyond recognition.
A witness, Preeti Raj Rai, who saw the crash from close quarters said the plane nose-dived on the banks of the Manohara, only five metres away from the human settlement, a fact that led people to think that worse could have happened had the plane crash ed at settlements nearby.
“I heard three distinct explosions go off. I was taking a bath and saw all this,” Rai, a resident of Manohara Basti, a slum area, said. “As the plane began to get closer and closer to where I was, I started running away, fearing that I might actually be hit.”
Although, some witnesses said they heard the aircraft passengers scream for help from inside, Rai dismissed the claim, saying that the aircraft hit the ground and exploded within seconds. “It exploded thrice and everything was finished in a flash.”
When this reporter arrived at the scene 25 minutes after the crash, hundreds of onlookers had gathered, some covering their noses to block the smell of burnt flesh emanating from the charred bodies, a fire-engine was dousing the flames, the wreckage was strewn around a 15-metre radius, the nose of the plane poking the sandy riverbank, but the tail remained largely intact.
According to Rai, police arrived 20 minutes after the crash, followed by the fire-fighters.
Crew members: Captain Bijay Tandukar, Co-pilot Takashi Thapa, Air hostess Ruju Shakya
Nepali nationals: Kumar Marshyangdi Magar, Lakpa Noru Sherpa, D Rai, MK Tamang
British nationals: Raymond Eagle, Christopher Francis Davey, Vincent Kelly, Darren Kelly, Timothy Oakes, Stephen Holding, Benjamin Ogden
Chinese nationals: Mingwu Qian, Lin Wu, Zhihua Yang, Chen Yang, Hui Wu.