After the inauguration of Pokhara Regional International Airport, locals stopped seeing aircraft flying above Prithvi Chok in the country’s tourism capital. But on Sunday, the scenes were different as a Yeti Airlines aircraft not only flew above the area but crashed in a gorge near a densely populated area of the city.
Babar Jung Gurung was on his terrace when he saw an uncontrolled aircraft turn to one side. By the time he could think what was going wrong, he heard an explosion.
“I rushed to the site and there was fire and smoke everywhere,” he said. “The aircraft had broken in half. It was chaotic. I had never seen anything like it.”
According to another local Bikas Basyal, the aircraft crashed into the top of the gorge, after which the loud noise came.
“Bodies were flying everywhere along with the parts of the aircraft. It was like a scene from a movie,” says Basyal.
As soon as that happened, there was smoke everywhere. The aircraft was burning in such a manner that the sky was full of smoke and news of the crash spread like wildfire.
Following that, the incident site was chaotic. People from all over Pokhara were there to see what had happened. Some helped the local security forces in the rescue process, but many were there just to see what was going on as they stood there taking videos obstructing the rescue.
So far, only 68 out of the 72 bodies have been found. Out of those only 26 have been identified.
While people outside the city will gradually forget the Pokhara plane crash, stakeholders here are concerned about the impact the incident could have on the city’s, as well as the country’s, prosperous tourism industry. Many fear that these crashes will be detrimental to the industry, which is gradually getting back on its feet after the coronavirus pandemic.
The excitement crashed
When the airport was inaugurated on January 1, many had seen it positively and had hoped it would be the stepping stone to the country being economically stable. The people of Pokhara were even more ecstatic as their decades-old dream of having an international airport had finally come true.
Even Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal was hopeful as the had mentioned during the inauguration ceremony how Pokhara Regional International Airport would contribute greatly to the country’s economy.
All that excitement turned into despair in little over two weeks as the city that was celebrating the airport went into mourning.
“The whole country is in mourning. This is a dark day for Nepal’s aviation and tourism industries,” says Sanjay Adhikari, a Pokhara local.
Oddly, the aircraft that crashed on Sunday was the same one that flew the first commercial flight to the new airport. Even the pilot was the same. On day 1, he stated how the new airport was safe and how he was excited to fly there. Sadly, his excitement was shortlived as the crash is the worst domestic air disaster the country has ever seen.
Air safety records at stake
This crash, the second in less than a year involving a Yeti Group aircraft, highlights the country’s poor air safety record. On May 29, 2022, a Tara Air aircraft crashed en route to Jomson killing all 22 on board.
Nepal’s air safety record is already infamous. The EU has put a ban on Nepali airline companies to fly to Europe citing safety concerns. The world knows this and if crashes like these continue, no foreigner or even a Nepali would like to fly a domestic aircraft.
“This accident is very sad for us when there is a challenge to operate regular air services at the new international airport here,” said industrialist Ananda Ram Mulmi. “Is it human error or are our aircraft too old? We need to conduct proper research.”
Basu Tripathi, a tourism entrepreneur, says that the accident raises questions about the future of Pokhara Regional International Airport.
“How did the crash happen? The weather was clear. The aircraft was connected with the ATC too. Do we assume something was wrong with the aircraft then?” he questions.
Tripathi says like all other crashes, the government and authorised bodies will forget about the crash in a few days. He feels that the people just do not learn and as result, the country has seen crashes like this regularly now. According to data, Nepal has seen 104 crashes since 1955, in which over 800 people have died. If you look at the last 24 years, Yeti Airlines has been involved in 13 crashes.
In May 2012, 19 people died when an Agni Air aircraft crashed near the Jomsom airport. In August 2002, 18 people lost their lives when a Twin-Otter plane of Shangrila Air crashed in Pokhara.
This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.