The plane seemed to be flying low—that was why Diwas Bohora pulled out his phone and started filming. Seconds after he hit record, it nosedived.
The 33-year-old, who lives under the flight path of Nepal’s Pokhara International Airport, regularly shoots aircraft videos as a hobby. He had no idea he was about to capture footage that would send shockwaves across the world, igniting new debate around alleged safety gaps in Nepal’s aviation industry.
This, after all, was just another one of the 10- to 20-odd planes he watched from his balcony every day. Only later would he realise he was actually witnessing the final moments of at least 70 peoples’ lives, and one of the most devastating aviation disasters in Nepal’s history.
“I was just sitting in the sun after my lunch, [when] I saw a plane very near to me, and I thought ‘I can make a good video of this plane and it will be content for my YouTube [channel],’” he told VICE World News. “But then suddenly the plane tilted.”
Filmed on the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 15th, Bohora’s video has been viewed by tens of millions of people. The twin-engine ATR-72 aircraft, operated by Nepalese carrier Yeti Airlines, was completing a half-hour domestic flight from Kathmandu and descending towards Pokhara’s newly inaugurated international airport when, for reasons still unknown, it suddenly banked hard to the left, plunging into the gorge of the Seti River.
Bohora, who lives less than 50 metres from the crash site, recalled a “huge blast, and a red flame, and feeling like there was an earthquake in my house.” The plane had shattered on impact. Seventy-two people were on board the flight; at the time of writing, at least 70 are confirmed dead.
The tragedy is the deadliest airline disaster Nepal has seen in more than 30 years, and the latest in a string of incidents that have hit the nation in the past several decades. Since 2000 there have been at least 21 fatal aviation accidents in Nepal, collectively claiming the lives of more than 350 people. Yeti Airlines and its subsidiary, Tara Air, have been involved in seven fatal crashes since 2004.
Rarely do the fatalities of the country’s airline disasters number as high as those of the Pokhara crash, though, and rarely are there so many victims from different corners of the world. This tragedy, which has taken the lives of 53 Nepalese as well as international travellers from Australia, Argentina, France, India, Ireland, South Korea, and Russia, is now shining a global spotlight on Nepal’s alarming airline safety record.
That safety record is so poor that the European Union has banned all Nepali airlines from operating in the bloc’s airspace since 2013, after the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) declared that they failed to comply with a number of critical protocols. And while the Himalayan nation suffers a uniquely challenging topography when it comes to flight safety, experts suggest that the problem is exacerbated by a lack of resources and a reluctance, maybe even unwillingness, to treat the clear and present dangers of air travel with the seriousness they deserve.
According to Geoffrey Thomas, aviation expert and editor-in-chief of Airlineratings.com, Nepal is “probably one of the least safe places in the world to fly, given the number of crashes versus the amount of traffic.”
“I believe that aviation [in Nepal] does not have as high a priority as it should,” Thomas told VICE World News, adding that the issues are numerous. “They have to put more resources into pilot training, they have to put more resources into upgrading the aircraft, they have to improve their airports, they have to improve the oversight of their aviation industry… But like many countries who are not that wealthy, it’s very difficult to do because aviation’s an expensive business.”
“A number of the airlines,” he added, “are more interested in suing you than they are in improving their safety record.”
Thomas speaks from experience. In previous years, multiple Nepalese airlines have threatened to sue his website, which offers expert safety reviews of hundreds of airlines around the world, for rating them poorly and “damaging tourism.” While he refused to cite the carriers by name, he suggested that such backlash is symptomatic of a disturbing reality: namely, that airlines might be willing to prioritise branding and reputation over the safety of those who fly.
“I, for one, would never fly in Nepal,” he said. “Not with what I know… through my contacts in pilot training and things like that. I have some significant reservations about some of the standards at some of the airlines.”
“We’re always expecting a tragedy in Nepal.”
Apurva Chaudhary is 26 years old, but he’s only been on a plane once, when he was a child. Like many other Nepalese, he too has learned to be leery of air travel.
“I don’t fly here in Nepal, because all you hear is tragic stories about planes crashing and no survivors,” he told VICE World News. “Nobody feels safe to travel by air here.”
In the days since the Pokhara crash, Chaudhary has tried to avoid scrolling through social media. Part of the reason is Bohora’s video, which he sees almost every time he opens his Snapchat, Facebook, or TikTok. But even more distressing is another clip that’s gone viral in the wake of the event: a livestream, filmed inside the plane cabin, that shows the calm and oblivious faces of the passengers in the moments before the aircraft rolls.
He is “worried sick” that he might see the face of his best friend, Nishant Acharya, who perished in the crash.
Chaudhary recalls the moment he heard the news. He was at home with a group of friends, socialising, relaxing, when another close friend called him. This friend had planned to fly to Pokhara with Acharya, but didn’t end up boarding the flight. Now that plane had crashed, he told Chaudhary, and Acharya wasn’t answering his phone.
“I panicked and started calling everyone,” Chaudhary said. “When I got a text that his body was identified by his dad I just couldn’t control my emotions. I burst out into tears. I was shaking, shivering, wishing this wasn’t true at all. I just wanted this to be a bad dream.”
Acharya had been flying to Pokhara, his hometown, to visit his family—a flight he took often. He was 27 years old.
Now, as many grapple with the pain of losing loved ones, they can’t help but feel this could have been avoided. Two days after the tragedy, Chaudhary told VICE World News he was still in shock. Despite his best efforts to take his mind off the crash, he couldn’t stop hearing his best friend’s voice, his laugh, “everything.”
“He was such a jolly person… He didn’t deserve this,” Chaudhary said. “When I hear this kind of news I get so sad, because the government is doing nothing for these kinds of things. It’s really shocking… I want the government to take this incident as a lesson and do something about it.”
Others want the same. Around 100 people gathered in Kathmandu on Monday night to light candles in memory of the Pokhara crash victims, while calling on the Nepalese government to ensure proper safety standards in its aviation sector.
Keith Tonkin, managing director at Australian aviation consultancy company Aviation Projects, noted that while hostile environmental factors and unsafe infrastructure pose unique challenges for the country, issues of governance are also slowing things down.
“One of the problems is that because Nepal has a lot of mountainous terrain and runways… it’s more difficult to implement both the standards and recommended practices that others have adopted,” he told VICE World News. “So there are practicalities, but there is also the governance and oversight situation that is not ideal there.”
In the 10 years since Nepal’s aviation sector was blacklisted by ICAO and then the EU, the rate of fatal airline accidents per year has remained more or less constant, resulting in the deaths of at least 189 people.
Thomas believes the Pokhara crash may finally force the government’s hand. Of the dozens of plane crashes to have taken place in Nepal over the past several decades, there is perhaps none, he suggested, that have been more likely to wedge authorities into meaningful action—primarily due to the amount of global attention, and scrutiny, now being levelled at Nepal.
This, he says, is partly a result of the historically high death count, as well as videos like Bohora’s that broadcast the shocking event on an international scale. But as both Thomas and Chaudhary pointed out, there may be another reason why the ripple effects of the Pokhara crash have extended beyond the borders of Nepal and garnered such worldwide attention.
As Chaudhury put it: “There were foreign people in the plane.”
“When you’ve got a crash that just involves the Nepalese, the publicity is not nearly as great,” said Thomas. “Sometimes it takes a terrible tragedy for things to get rectified… This crash involving international folks, and the number of people on board, and the accessibility, means that there’s going to be a huge light shone on Nepalese aviation, and it’ll be a major detriment to tourism.”
“Hopefully it’s a watershed for them to say we have to get really serious about aviation… we need international help, international expertise, and international funding.”
If nothing else, both Thomas and Chaudhury hope that the lives of the 72 people onboard the Kathmandu to Pokhara aren’t lost in vain—that they don’t simply become statistics in Nepal’s airline disaster death count, but inspire real and lasting change in the country.
“There have been many incidents like this before that have been forgotten in a glimpse, but I really hope that the government will put emphasis on this issue and try to do something to resolve it,” Chaudhury said. “I hope that many more people don’t have to lose their loved ones.”
Additional reporting by Koh Ewe.
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