KATHMANDU, Sept 29: A Dornier D-228 of Sita Air crashed Friday morning near the banks of the Manohara River in Bhaktapur, killing all 19 people on board.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) claimed the aircraft (9N AHA) met with an accident after it was hit by an hawk just one minute after its take off from Tribhuvan International Airport at 6:18 am. The accident site is just some 500 meters south-east of the runway.
The Lukla-bound aircraft was carrying seven Britons and five Chinese tourists along with four Nepali passengers.
The three crew members, who lost their lives in the crash, include pilot Bijaya Tandukar, 43, co-pilot Takashi Thapa, 25, and air-hostess Ruja Shakya, 26.
Tandukar had 10 years of flying experience. Thapa and Shakya joined the airline two years ago and five months ago respectively.
Sita Air confirmed that the deceased Nepali passengers are Kumar Magar, Lakpa Norbu Sherpa, Deepen Rai and Madan Kumari Tamang. All the Britons killed in the crash were male, while two of the five Chinese were female.
Graphics: Rabin Sayami
Neither the airline nor CAAN has made public the names of the deceased foreign nationals, saying that they could not yet verify details.
"The names could not all be verified Friday. We will release their names as soon as we reconfirm the facts," said Suresh Acharya, joint-secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation.
Officials suspect that travel agencies could have sent on board tourists other than the registered passengers. Such a practice is illegal.
According to the aviation authority, the fire brigade reached the site 20 minutes after the crash. The fire following the accident destroyed the aircraft and charred the bodies.
Cause of crash
According to General Manager of Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA), Ratish Chandra Lal Suman, a preliminary study suggests that a bird strike was the major cause of the crash. "The control tower had contacted the cockpit after observing the aircraft´s maneuvers and pilot Tandukar had informed about the ´bird-hit´," he said.
CAAN officials disclosed that Tandukar had requested the tower for an emergency landing following the ´bird-hit´.
If a bird hit one of the engines of the double-engine craft, it might have stopped functioning, they acknowledged. "Had the pilot in that case taken a sharp turn after the hit, it was not a wise move as the radius of the turn would be very small," a CAAN official said.
The position of the aircraft suggests that it turned toward the north for an emergency landing at TIA. Unfortunately, the pilot might have lost control and the aircraft might have struck the bank of the river nearby.
Former CAAN deputy director general Binod Gautam said since the hit occured immediately after the take-off, it could have rattled the pilot, preventing him from concentrating on other warnings if there were any, such as fire warning.
"The other reason for the accident could be technical problems in the aircraft. But nothing can be said about this until an in-depth investigation is carried out," he added.
However, Sales and Marketing Manager at Sita Air, Deependra Shahi, said the aircraft was in sound condition. "The report will reveal the details. All we can say now is, the crash is not due to any mechanical problem," he said.
Six major air crashes in two years
Records show that the total number of major air crashes with fatalities since August 2010 has now reached six.
Nepali aviation experts opine that poor enforcement of safety rules, lack of implementation of recommendations made by air crash probe committees and the difficult terrain are some of the major reasons for air crashes in Nepal.
Although most air crash reports have ended up blaming pilot error, questions have been raised about aviation safety practices in terms of duty hours, insufficient cockpit resource management and other factors.
A senior CAAN official said investigations show that more than 80 percent of air crashes in Nepal are due to ´human error´. "The trend of most of the accidents shows that pilots have been found not following the standard operation procedure and lacking proper decision-making in situations of emergency," the official said. The other reasons for past accidents were identified as mechanical failure, difficult terrain and poor weather conditions.
Probe to submit report within three months
The Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoTCA) has formed a five-member probe committee to investigate Friday´s air accident.
The committee, headed by former secretary at MoCTCA Nagendra Prasad Ghimire, has been asked to submit its report within three months as per the Civil Aviation Accident Investigation Rules.
The other members of the committee include Dr. Ranjit Singh Baral, coordinator of the Aviation Medical Board, Rajesh Shrestha, Dornier aircraft instructor pilot at Tara Air, and M.K. Shrestha, deputy director for engineering at Agni Air.
Suresh Acharya, joint-secretary at the ministry, has been appointed member-secretary of the committee.
Doubt raised about bird-hit cause
Meanwhile, speaking at a media briefing organized by Reporters´ Club on Friday afternoon, senior captain of Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) Rabindra K Sherchan said that bird-hits alone cannot cause fatalities.
At the briefing, he shared his experinces of encoutering birds and landing safely. "The aircraft in question was not in a position to operate and was grounded until Thursday," he said.
But officials of CAAN and Sita Air stated that the aircraft was operating schedule flights in a regular manner since the last few days.
Video courtesy: Nagariknews
Police man carries the black box after it was recovered from a Sita airplane wreckage. AFP