A relatively inexperienced co-pilot was at the controls when a Summit Air plane started to skid during its attempt to take off at Lukla airport, causing it to lose control and run into an exterior fence colliding with two parked helicopters, three officials familiar with the preliminary probe told the Post.
Two policemen and the co-pilot, Sujit Dhungana, were killed when the 19-seater aircraft crashed on Sunday morning. The incident is the first recorded accident in Nepal’s civil aviation history in which an aircraft killed personnel on the ground.
Aviation authorities investigating into the crash told the Post that the co-pilot who was commanding the LET L-410 flight taking off from what has been dubbed one of the world’s most challenging airports had significantly fewer flying hours.
“The co-pilot has not had more than a year and a half of flying experience,” an official involved in the preliminary probe told the Post on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. “That is too little experience to fly in and out of such a challenging airport.”
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal rules mandates a co-pilot flying in high-altitude areas to complete additional training—including for short takeoff and landing—with an instructor pilot.
During Sunday’s takeoff, investigating officials said that the captain could have allowed the co-pilot to take control because he had confidence in his abilities and the flight was not carrying any passengers. But officials at the regulatory body told the Post they will investigate all documents to confirm whether Dhungana, the co-pilot, was qualified to take off.
Officials at the aviation regulator said that they have obtained the aircraft’s flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder (CDR) and interviewed flight’s captain, Rabindra Rokaya, to launch a formal investigation into Sunday’s crash.
Another official at the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal said that the plane swung immediately after the pilots fed power to the plane’s systems. “The pilot-in-command was unable to control the plane and it eventually skidded off the runway,” the official said. A video obtained by the Post from the scene shows the moment the flight started to skid off the runway seconds after it began to accelerate.
[Watch: CCTV footage shows the Summit Air crash]
Moments later, the plane ran into an exterior fence and collided with two parked helicopters that belonged to Manang Air and Shree Air. There were no passengers aboard the aircraft because normally, during the climbing season, flights drop off passengers at Lukla, the closest airport to the Everest base camp, and return with empty seats. It was Summit Air’s third flight to Manthali Airport in Ramechhap, from where it would pick up passengers who had flown in from Kathmandu to come to Lukla.
An eyewitness who was at the scene described the moment the plane came hurling towards the helipad from the flight takeoff point.
“The plane started to roll with its nose down from the end of the runway where the airport terminal is located. After rolling for about 30 metres in full speed, the aircraft lost control and suddenly turned right before hitting the Manang Air helicopter,” said Ang Tashi Sherpa, an eyewitness of the Sunday’s accident who works as a rescue specialist for Simrik Air.
“The aircraft first hit Manang Air helicopter standing on the upper helipad which had its rotors spinning, and was dragged downwards before it hit the Shree Air helicopter parked at the lower helipad,” said Ang Tashi.
Ang Tashi said passengers at the airport, most of whom were foreign trekkers and mountaineers, started to scream and rush to the crash site.
Tribhuvan International Airport spokesperson Pratap Babu Tiwari said that Assistant Sub-inspector Ram Bahadur Khadka stationed at the helipad for duty was killed on the spot. Assistant Sub-inspector Rudra Bahadur Shrestha, who was injured in the incident and airlifted to Kathmandu, died at Grande International Hospital later in the morning, hospital officials told the Post.
Rabindra Rokaya, the captain of the flight who was assisting the co-pilot, and Chet Gurung, captain of the Manang Air helicopter, and Lakpa Sherpa, an official with Manang Air, were injured in the accident. They are receiving treatment at Grande Hospital and are out of danger, doctors said.
According to Ang Tashi, the Manang Air helicopter’s rotors were spinning after it dropped some government officials at Lukla, including chief district officer and police officials who had arrived in Solukhumbu district to participate in a New Year event. Two policemen who were killed on the ground had been mobilised for the security of the government officials, he said.
“The accident happened just a few minutes after the chief district officer and the police officials disembarked from the chopper,” Ang Tashi said.
“At first, I was afraid to enter the Manang Air chopper because there was smoke coming from the back of the plane,” he said, recalling moments after the crash. “After a while, when I entered the chopper and tried to pull the helicopter captain out of his seat, he told me he could not move because of severe back pain,” said Ang Tashi. “I asked him whether the main fuel was shut off. He told me it was.”
According to Ang Tashi, the co-pilot may have died because of the impact of the Manang Air’s rotor that could have hit him. “The plane had dragged the helicopter down for few seconds and the rotor was still spinning,” he said.
This is the second crash of Summit Air, formally known as Goma Air, and third crash with casualties in Lukla. Two years ago, Summit Air Flight 409 crashed on its final approach to Lukla, killing two pilots. In 2008, a Yeti Airlines flight crashed while making a final approach and caught fire, killing 18 passengers and flight crew. The aircraft’s captain was the only survivor.
The runway at the Lukla airport, often referred to as one of the world’s dangerous airports, is 527 meters long that has been carved into a mountain ridge with a sharper-than-normal slope. The airport is located at 2,845 meters above sea level and is considered the first stop for hundreds of climbers who come to Nepal annually during this time of the year to climb Mount Everest.