Nepal’s Flight 691: reexamining aviation safety
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Lubna Jerar Naqvi dissects Flight 691’s unfortunate and gruesome plane crash that shocked Nepal.
The smiling passenger broadcasting a Facebook Live video from inside Yeti Airlines flight 691 is all that remains of the life aboard the doomed plane minutes before it crashed at Pokhara airport.
The plane was to land at the newly inaugurated airport in Pokhara after a 27-minute trip from the capital, Kathmandu. But instead of landing on the runway, the plane crashed in a gorge in the Seti River, just over a kilometre from the airport. This is being called the worst crash in over 30 years.
Nepalese officials confirm that 68 of the 72 passengers on Flight 691 were killed in the crash. The passengers’ list included 57 Nepalis, five Indians, four Russians, two South Koreans, and one person each from Argentina, Ireland, Australia, and France.
Anup Joshi, the Pokhara airport spokesperson, said the "mountains were clear and visibility was good," that there was a light wind, and "no issue with weather." Adding, "The pilot had asked for change from the assigned runway 3 to runway 1 and did not flag 'anything untoward' to air traffic control."
Yeti Airline Flight 691 was a two-engine ATR 72 aircraft that is used by airlines around the world for short regional flights. Introduced in the 1980s by a French and Italian partnership, the aircraft model has a bad track record and has been involved in several deadly accidents over the years. Two accidents involving ATR 72-500 and ATR 72-600 aircraft in Taiwan (in 2014 and 2015) led to the planes being grounded for a period.
Many experts believe that flying conditions in the Himalayan terrain are dangerous, and that Nepal needs to do much more to ensure aviation safety - there have been 21 fatal aviation accidents in Nepal since 2000, killing hundreds.
Commenting on the Nepal plane crash, aviation expert Geoffrey Thomas said, "There is a lot more that can be done; they (the Nepal government) need to take this more seriously than they do."
"It seems to be an aerodynamic stall, in the vision you see the nose of the aircraft is a little bit high, it’s going very slowly even though it’s on approach, and it appears as though it collapsed off the wing, and it dove into the ground."
Replying to whether it was technical or pilot error, Thomas said, "It could be a combination of both; it could have had an engine failure, we don’t know that at this stage but the nose-high attitude, which is an indication that it could be a stall that’s something that can be fixed simply to gain airspeed, so that’s a fundamental of flying for a pilot to be able to recover from a stall situation because there is a buffering. The aircraft is getting into a stall, it starts to shake and vibrate and there are various warnings, and the automatic response is to push the nose down to gain airspeed and recover the situation. It’s all about lift-off the wing."
Tahir Imran Mian, a Pakistani journalist who reports on aviation and is consulting editor for Pakistan Aviation and Fact Focus, said, "It’s very critical because I believe that all the aviation accidents are avoidable because 99% of them are due to human error. When we say human error, that is either the pilot or the traffic controller or the engineer; whoever has screwed up as a result, the plane ends up in an accident, and things go wrong, so in short, yes, this could have been avoidable."
"The video Diwas Bohora recorded in the last moments of the plane appears to show a stall, a situation in which a plane loses lift, especially at low airspeeds," Tahir continued.
Replying to the question of whether there could be any survivors, Thomas said, "If they did survive, it would be a true miracle, but this looks like an unsurvivable accident in my view."
In response to a question about whether the plane's proximity to the ground would increase the chances of more survivors, Tahir said, "Proximity to the ground is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage, because in the case of the Karachi PIA crash, the plane ended up in a colony, so the middle of the street gave it a sort of cushion that helped the two survivors, but at the same time the same environment was the main obstacle in the plane's attempt to land when it was on a go around.”
Tahir Imran Mian said, "From the preliminary data that I have viewed on different platforms, plus the visuals as well as the videos of the last moments of the plane and then the visuals after the crash, I will be very, very surprised if there is anybody who could come out of that plane alive. This is because, in the final moments, the plane appears to be tilting, and it was almost on a flight where it was supposed to return to its base."
Mian added, "Most planes take their fuel with them from their base station. In this case, the best station was Kathmandu, so the plane must have had more fuel, as a result, you see that huge ball of fire, and because of that ball of fire, whoever was injured or was a survivor of the initial impact must have lost their lives later."
He said, "Then, in these mountainous regions, the weather is a huge element, and because of the weather, the planes carry extra fuel in case they have to return to the airport from where they took off or somewhere else, which is not their intended destination. That is exactly the case in Pakistan for flights to Chitral, Gilgit, and Skardu, where planes take their fuel for the return leg because they sometimes cannot land due to bad weather. Sometimes the plane comes back from the destination because the weather is not permitting the plane to land."
The European Union has made it illegal for Nepal Airlines to fly to European countries, citing safety as the reason. Mourning families of plane crash victims demand that the government do more to improve aviation safety in Nepal in order to make the country's airspace safer.
Lubna Jerar Naqvi is a professional journalist and factchecker based in Pakistan. She's IFJ's Pakistan Gender Coordinator and the VP of Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ).