Thai Airways Airbus A310 That Crashed in Nepal
Credit: Torsten Maiwald via Wikimedia Commons (GNU Free Documentation License)

This beautiful Airbus A310 performed its last flight on July 31, 1992. It crashed in a hill north of Kathmandu, the place where no aircraft ever flies into. How did it happen to go there? Photo taken on  Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand - just three months before the fatal crash of its routine commercial flight THA311 in Kathmandu.

"Don't fly into the clouds, there are mountains hidden inside the clouds!"

This is what every other Nepali pilot used to say to each other, at least from what I have heard pilots who flew in the Nepalese airspace in the 20th century. Those days are now long gone, thanks to the use of modern navigational technologies, meteorological and satellite data in real time. But still - high mountains, deep valleys, extreme weather, short runways - all these factors make up flying in Nepal very challenging. What surprises me is that only Lukla airport comes up in the treacherous airports in the world while I think every other mountainous airport in Nepal is equally dangerous to fly into.

Giving responsibilities on trainee pilots, trainee engineers and trainee air traffic controllers does not work in Nepal. No matter where you learned or what scores you got in your training and exams, what matters is the experience - at least thousands of hours in your place. Don't believe me? These accidents will give you some hint.

Nepal has a "reputation" in aviation accidents

Since 2008, there have been six major incidents on air crashes in Nepal. More than 114 people have died in those accidents and "pilot error" is reported to be one of the main causes. Since 1946, there have been 32 fatal accidents[1] and the death toll on those crashes is 701.

Below are the five most major aviation accidents and air crashes that occurred in Nepal. We will see why these accidents were due to minor mistakes and why Nepal should take all this seriously.

1. Thai Airways Flight 311

Route: Bangkok - Kathmandu

Aircraft Involved: Airbus A310

Registration: HS-TID

Fatalities: 113 dead out of 113

Rank: 2nd worst accident in Nepal, 4th worldwide

The crash of Thai Airways International on July 31, 1992 is noted as the fourth worst accident worldwide. Of all the 113 occupants, not even a single person made it alive. The whole situation is very disturbing because of the mistakes involved. There was no fault on the aircraft and the crash has been classified as "controlled flight into terrain", meaning that the plane was under the full control of the pilots, but they unintentionally flew it into the ground.

What actually happened to Thai Airways 311?

Where is ROMEO waypoint in Nepal?
Credit: Google Maps

The ROMEO point is 41 nautical miles (76 km) away from Kathmandu airport's VOR (Very High Frequency Omni Directional Radio Range) beacon - a distance of about 77 km from the airport. It lies just east of Simara airport and is the entrance point for most of the aircrafts entering Nepal from South East.

To understand what happened to the THA311, let's first understand the approach into Kathmandu International Airport. As seen on above image, the point ROMEO is generally used for entry into the beautiful Kathmandu valley, which is about 41 miles south of Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu. From there, the approach is straight into the runway 02 at Kathmandu with heading 021 via two other waypoints -RATAN and NOPEN.

Just about 26 minutes prior to the crash, TG311 reported itself at the ROMEO point, requesting approach to land on runway 02 (the usual runway for most of the international flights). However, because of low visibility in that area, the air traffic controllers told that only runway 20 was available (which is the other end of runway 02). This required the aircraft to enter Kathmandu valley at 10,500 feet, descend to 5,800 feet until 5 miles from the runway 02 and follow through a very narrow 4 nautical mile radius circle-to-land approach into runway 20. TG311 obliged.

ROMEO Point in NepalCredit: Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal

Photo: Waypoints and Intersections in Nepal[2]

However, just as they were preparing for descent, the flap system did not function. The approach into Kathmandu has a very high descent profile, which has to be performed very accurately with the combination of right speed and descent rate. Without flaps, they could not decrease their speed and reduce the altitude. So they backed out.

Runway 20 Approach KTMCredit: Jeppesen

Photo: Runway 02 and 20 Approach and Missed Approach Profiles for Kathmandu[4]

What happened next will shock you because it was such a minor error that could have easily been corrected. The pilot contacted Kathmandu ATC for diversion, who instructed them to go back to ROMEO in the South. However, instead of performing a climb-out from 10,500 to 18,000 feet as a 180 turn, the crew took a 360 degrees turn, heading back to the north. The investigation reports[5] suggest that the crew was using a faulty navigational chart that showed another ROMEO point in the North too. Instead of going south, the aircraft hit a mountain just north of Kathmandu. Due to low visibility, it was too late until the pilot found out that they were so close to the ground.

Other faults:

  • Radio Interference due to which ATC could not instruct them clearly
  • Language difficulties and miscommunication between the controllers and the crew
  • Lack of radar in KTM due to which the ATC could not know where the aircraft actually was

After the crash, Thai Airways changed the flight number of its Bangkok-Kathmandu route. Instead of TG311 and TG320, it's TG319 inbound for Kathmandu and TG320 back to Bangkok. Currently, Thai Airways operates a Boeing 777-2D7 aircraft on this route, once daily.

TG311 Crash (Video)

A flight simulator enthusiast has made a very interesting video about the Thai Airways crash, which perfectly explains the weather conditions, pilot error and the fault in Nepalese air traffic controllers.

2. Pakistan Airlines Flight 268

Route: Karachi - Kathmandu

Aircraft Involved: Airbus A300

Registration: AP-BCP

Fatalities: 167 dead out of 167 (including 19 crew)

Rank: Worst accident in Nepal, 6th worldwide[5]

Use of inaccurate navigation data wasn't the only factor for TG311, but it became the sole factor for Pakistan International Airlines' Flight #268 on September 28, 1992. It wasn't even two months after the TG311 incident that this doomed flight crashed into the mountains.

Descent Profile Kathmandu VNKTCredit: Jeppesen Sanderson Inc.

Chart: Approach and Descend Profile for Kathmandu[4]

The crew failed to follow this chart!

The above chart is the descent profile pilots use to land on runway 02 at Kathmandu. As we can see, it is a very steep ladder-step profile. Don't descend below the altitude, otherwise you're at a risky height for coming in to land on the runway.

At 16 nautical miles from the VOR station (located 0.6 miles from the runway), you are at the point called NOPEN. At 13 miles, you must be at 10,500 feet, 9500 feet at 10 miles and so on. Don't go below the altitude unless you meet the distance. Follow the step-by-step profile. However, the crew of PK268 rushed in. They followed the step profile, but one step early. At 16 miles, the plane was at 10,500 feet instead of 11,500. At 10 miles, they were at 8,200 - which is a very big 1,300 feet difference. The aircraft crashed at 7,280 feet[7] when they were on "final" circuit of the traffic pattern, meaning they were perfectly aligned with the runway, but just 9.16 miles away.[6]

Primary cause clearly seems to be pilot error. However, the air traffic controllers also did nothing to warn them. The investigators confirm that the crew was reporting its height and distance accurately to the controllers. Why would the ATC be so ignorant?

The Wreckage of PIA 268

Pakistan Airlines 268 Wreckage
Credit: Coolgenx1 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

This photo was taken one day after the accident. The plane crashed on the southern side of the hill surrounding Kathmandu valley.

A perfect read for air disaster junkies

Air Disaster (Vol. 3)
Amazon Price: $60.56 Buy Now
(price as of Mar 4, 2015)
The volume III of this includes the details of flights 311 and 268 in Nepal, along with most of the cockpit and the ATC recordings. Mysterious crashes like the Russian Aeroflot where the son of a pilot flies the plane, Pittsburgh disaster of 1994 and the blow up of the fuselage in a 747 in Hawaii back in 1989 are also included.

3. Sita Air Flight 601

Route: Kathmandu - Lukla

Aircraft Involved: Dornier 228

Registration: 9N-AHA

Fatalities: 19 dead out of 19 (including 3 crew)

Rank: 9th Worst accident in Nepal, Worst accident of the Do 228 aircraft worldwide

Imagine this. You are flying to Lukla, one of the most dangerous airports. It is obviously normal to fear what might happen during the landing phase. However, little do you fear the takeoff from a relatively safer airport, don't you? This fear became a reality for the 19 people on board Sita Air's flight 601 on September 28, 2012. The cause of the crash is still unconfirmed, but the pilot seems to have reported bird strike during the takeoff.

The pilot is also to blame. One of the main things is that the ATC says that the aircraft wasn't aligned with the runway's centerline. This might have contributed to the loss of controls for trying to align perfectly with the centerline during the speedy takeoff, which might have caused difficulty in maneuvering the aircraft once it took off (which slightly explains the plane's banking). Also, the plane stalled and crashed into the ground (again, there is a good chance it might be due to the difficulty in controls).

Even after two full years, no report has been officially published. And here's what we know: The aircraft entered the runway 20 via taxiway "Alpha", powered up and started rolling. At the takeoff speed, the pilot lifts of the plane from the runway - seconds after which a vulture strikes the right engine. The pilot tries to steer the plane back to the runway 02 (the other side), however, this turn is so tight that the aircraft loses control and crashes just 500 meters shy of the runway. To make matters more baffling, it has also been almost confirmed that the aircraft was overloaded.[8]

Who is to blame? The pilot? The vulture? Or the staffs of the ground crew who loaded the plane?

Plane crashes on a football ground, leaves 19 dead

If you can, ignore their English usage. They did manage to explain what happened to the Sita Air aircraft.

"The pilot was a very nice person. Instead of crashing into our house, he headed for the ground!" - Oh my gosh! Can you believe this?

Sita Air #601 Crash Site

Doesn't it break your heart that they were so close to the airport and missed it? The pin number 2 is the crash site. [9]

Kathmandu Airport Get Directions
Tribhuvan International Airport (KTM), Ring Road, Kathmandu 44600, Nepal
Sita Air 601 Crash Site Get Directions
Manohara River Banks (just 0.5 km away from the airport)

Here's another accident of Sita Air at Lukla

(why you should wear seat belts until instructed otherwise)

Upon landing at Lukla, the brakes failed on this Dornier 228 aircraft (9N-AHB) and it struck the pavement on the other side of the runway. No casualties, though.

THE CRASH OF SITA AIR 601. (Air Crash Files)
Amazon Price: Buy Now
(price as of Mar 4, 2015)

4. Buddha Air Flight 103

Route: Kathmandu - Mountain

Aircraft Involved: Beechcraft 1900 D

Registration: 9N-AEK

Fatalities: 19 dead out of 19 (including 3 crew)

Date: September 25, 2011

Rank: 9th Worst accident in Nepal, 6th Worst accident of the Beech 1900 'D' aircraft worldwide

Buddha Air's Beech 1900 D aircraft
Credit: KongFu Wang from Beijing/via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

An aircraft similar to the one involved in the incident on September 25, 2011.

This crash brings so many memories to me, personally. I can still remember the day. Monsoon season was over, but the late monsoon showers made the morning misty with drizzles. I knew it wasn't the best day for a mountain flight in the Himalayas because the visibility in that part will also be the same. We had gone to the sightseeing flight just 3 months back on a similar day and we had missed half of the mountains we were promised to see.

Returning from a similarly failed mountain flight, the Buddha Air aircraft, operating as flight 103 crashed into a hill at 5,400 feet[10] - just about 1200 feet from the runway height. It was preparing for the final leg when it was 5 miles from the airport. At this distance, the pilot should not have crossed the 6,100 feet height[4]. As such, the officials have pointed out that the main reason was the "lack of situational awareness". However, the aircraft was also flying visual (VFR) while the weather conditions were totally extreme. This was a blow to the reputation of Buddha Air as it was their first accident ever.

The Same Buddha Air Aircraft That Crashed

This video shows the Buddha Air Beech 1900D, registered as 9N-AEK, landing on  runway 02 at Kathmandu - approximately 400 feet above the ground. It crashed 9 months later while approaching the same runway.

5. Agni Air Flight CHT

Route: Pokhara - Jomsom

Aircraft Involved: Dornier 228

Registration: 9N-AIG

Fatalities: 15 dead (including 2 crew) out of 21 

Date: May 14, 2012

Rank: 20th worst accident in Nepal, 5th worst accident of the Do-228 aircraft worldwide[12]

A chartered flight run by Agni Air to the holy town of Mustang crashed into the hills surrounding the airport. It had initiated a go-around after the pilots found a fault in the landing gear system, when the aircraft slammed into the nearby hill. 13 Indians and 2 Nepalese (the pilot and the co-pilot) died that day.

Agni Air 9N-AIGCredit: Moralist via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The same aircraft 9N-AIG in Lukla a few months before the crash.

Photo by Moralist via Wikimedia Commons

According to the investigators, the aircraft was to land on runway 06 and it was approaching it. However, the gear showed a fault and the pilots decided to abort the landing and go missed. The left turn they took was within a very small circle and at a very critical speed. The data recorders show that the plane stalled for full 12 seconds[11] before its left wing hit the slope.

Agni D228 at Jomsom on May 14th 2012, impacted terrain during go-around
Credit: The Aviation Herald

The bottom left part of the runway was from where they were prepared to land (i.e. runway 06). They took a very steep turn to the left without realizing there was a terrain. It is also shown that the co-pilot had warned the pilot about the terrain (but very faintly).[11]

Bollywood Child Actor Who Died in the Agni Air Crash

Taruni Sachdev, 14, who was a child actor from Mumbai, India was among the dead passengers in this crash in Jomsom, Nepal. As weird as it may sound, she died the same day she was born - May 14 at the age of 14. She even said "Good Bye" before leaving for her tour.

Citing irregularities and noncompliance with the international aviation standards, the European Union has banned every Nepali airline operator from entering the European countries. Even after this ban, the airline regulatory (Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal - CAAN) has made little to no progress in reforms. Aircrafts continue to be grounded because of small incidents, new companies don't get certificate in time and even new aircraft don't get to take off - that's why EU does not seem to be in any position to void the 2013 ban anytime soon.

This is a very powerful blow to Nepal with so many tourist attractions. 70,877 domestic flights fly more than 1.5 million passengers to these tourist places in Nepal every year. It is time Nepalese government actually did something. Otherwise, its 300 million rupees[14] tourist industry is seriously in jeopardy.