Undoing the fatwa

Published On: March 28, 2017 12:25 AM NPT By: Hemant Arjyal

If the public is willing and the entrepreneurs ready, the concerned agencies should not obstruct single-engine airlines
The credit of introducing Short Take-off and Landing (STOL) aircraft in Nepal goes to Switzerland-based International Committee of Red Cross. These aircrafts were involved in Tibetan refugee rehabilitation since the early 1960s. Incidentally, Toni Hagen, the famous Swiss geologist, acted as a facilitator between the ICRC and the Nepal Government in talks about the manner in which the relief work was to be carried out, given the sensitivity up north. The Swiss connection became pronounced with the use of Swiss-made single engine aircraft the “Pilatus Porter” (PC6) in distributing relief materials for the refugees. 

It is interesting that Edmund Hillary was instrumental in “preparing” the landing strip in the mountain pasture of Mingbo (4,573m) in the shadows of Ama Dablam. He led an expedition to the Khumbu region in the autumn of 1959 to put up a research hut at about 5,950m in the Mingbo glacier. Subsequently, a spot for possible landing strip was identified at a lower altitude. The first ever prototype Pilatus (HB-FAN) was already flying in Nepal with the Swiss Dhaulagiri expedition and had proved its worth by setting a high-altitude landing record for a fixed-wing aircraft. 

Hillary was approached by a Pilatus pilot, Capt. Schrieber, a Swiss again, who wanted to know whether it was possible to build a suitable strip for unloading supplies in the Khumbu region.

Having realised the potential of the Mingbo site Sir Ed struck a deal, such that his team would prepare the landing strip and the Swiss would ferry several loads of aluminium sheets for his school in Khumjung. The pilot alone could not have agreed to such a compromise without Toni Hagen’s nod. 

It was not an auspicious beginning that the aircraft, on its first Mingbo mission, had its tail wheel damaged on landing, resulting in a few days of grounding. The strip was later extended by 95m, to 460m. Interestingly, local Sherpa wisdom in digging craters to bury two huge boulders, which obstructed the take-off path, proved more pragmatic than the conventional method of hammering and chipping the stubborn outcrops.

Mingbo strip was in operation for several months before the authorities got wind of the unauthorized commissioning and wanted one of their experts to make an appraisal visit. And naturally such a request had to be complied forthwith. The officer in question was flown to Mingbo on April 5, 1960 and had first-hand experience of a dangerous landing under very strong side winds. The pilot had no option but to drop the aircraft vertically from about 10m on to the rough strip with a mighty thud that had everyone on board badly shaken. Naturally, the officer was the most shaken of all having severe bouts of vomiting on landing. Obviously, this was his first rough landing at such an altitude. 

As a knee jerk reaction he issued an immediate fatwa declaring Mingbo strip closed for good. And by so doing, he also grounded the aircraft he was supposed to fly out. He was politely made to realize that seventeen days of hard trekking was the only way to get back to civilization. Making a quickest U-turn, as like an aircraft in a hurry, he decreed that Mingbo be open just for the last outbound flight! 

Of course, there must be valid reasons for the use of fixed-wing single-engine aircraft in this country where even a small patch of flat land can be used as a landing strip effectively. RA had owned couple of more powerful Pilatus turbo props, providing services to areas frequented by tourists. UNDP also owned one, flown by non-other than Hardy Feurer, the famous Swiss pilot who loved and flew in Nepal for many years. Hotel Everest View in Thyangboche solely relied on PC6s to ferry its clients. Hardy also believed that a Pilatus-like aircraft, the landing space for which is between that of a helicopter and a Twin-Otter, was about right for Nepal. This undoubtedly highlighted single-engine aircraft’s tremendous versatility, especially for a country like ours.

Imagine the potential role of the single engine aircraft (SEA) in facilitating “spot tourism” in the remotest corners of Nepal. And the positive aspects of forward and backward economic linkages such a penetration offers to the local economy. The airline entrepreneurs have the idea, know about the economic risks and see a window of opportunity. All that the tourism fraternity wants is stable and pragmatic policies, not impractical bureaucratic impositions. One only has to add up the fatalities of all the busses going off the cliffs in Nepal. But despite that buses are not only plying freely, but are also still falling-off frequently! 

Sadly, the Mingbo-like fatwa is still obstinately imposed. The policy has killed operations of SEA and rendered many scattered STOL fields useless. There is an urgent need to undo the restriction.

There will surely be a hue and cry against such a ludicrous policy. One cannot be compelled to fly in single-engine aircraft unless one is willing. If the public at large is willing and the entrepreneurs ready, the concerned agencies would be better off concentrating on monitoring. And if that was ever to happen, entrepreneurs could be a party in developing newer strips in promising locations in cooperation with local bodies. It should create new opportunities in local areas in question and also in the country at large. 


Leave A Comment