Nepal helicopter crash raises questions

 

 

Jonathan Bancroft

March 27th, 2019

 

In the wake of a tragic helicopter crash that killed all seven people onboard, including Nepal’s Tourism Minister, the circumstances of the crash and the purpose of the flight has raised some questions.

 

The crash happened shortly after takeoff from Pathibhara, a mountaintop shrine at 3,800m (12,500ft). The pilot reportedly radioed the tower to report, “Heavy snowfall, can’t get airborne.”

 

But, just six minutes after that transmission, the helicopter took off and less than one minute later, it crashed into a cliff below the temple and burst into flames.

 

Footage has emerged, taken by a villager, that shows the helicopter lose-lift. The rotors then appear to stop working and the helicopter spins one full rotation before hitting the mountain side and bursting into flames.

 

In a video posted on Facebook, Minister Adhikari said in a speech to locals before the flight, “It’s raining, the weather is bad and we have to return.” The Minister had a flight booked to Berlin the following day.

 

It has been widely speculated that the pilot of the aircraft may have rushed his pre-flight inspection. One local eye-witness said, “He walked once around the helicopter, maybe less than a minute, then he got in and started it.”

 

In addition, former Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) Director, Triratna Manandhar said, “Having a minister and his own boss among his passengers may have put undue psychological pressure on Captain KC to get them out.”

 

There is also a question of if the aircraft was overloaded at the time of take-off. The Passenger Cargo Manifest and Load Sheet shows a calculation of 2,245kg. An expert at Airbus said, “The maximum take off weight for the Eurocopter AS350 B3e is 2,250kg.” This is backed-up by the Aerospace Technology website.

 

 

A discrepancy shows that the original calculation of the passengers was calculated to be 480kg (1,058lbs), but that was crossed out and replaced with 450kg (992lbs). Divided by six passengers, that’s an average of only 75kg (165lbs) each.

 

After speaking to people close to each of the passengers, it is estimated that most onboard were over 80kg (176lbs) each. That puts the actual weight of the passengers closer to the original 480kg that was originally calculated. In addition, each passenger was also carrying a bag that could have added an extra 10-20kg (44lbs).

 

This would have put the aircraft at approximately 2,300kg (5,070lbs) on take-off. Not calculating the additional weight of snow and ice buildup, the aircraft was already close to being 50kg (110lbs) too heavy.

 

A senior CAAN official who has refused to be named due to the sensitivity of the accident has said, “Before the bodies were even recovered it was a foregone conclusion that snow build-up and ice on the rotors 'must' have caused the crash.”

 

The capabilities of Nepal’s air crash investigators has recently been called into question. In this specific crash, the bodies of those onboard were recovered before investigators began documenting the site. In addition, the military combed and disturbed the site to recover the weapon of the Ministers bodyguard.

 

To complicate matters further, less than 24-hours before the crash, two sources from two different helicopter companies, Mountain Helicopters and Air Dynasty, said that it had been necessary for them to increase security around their aircraft as tensions were high between rival businesses.

 

This is due to a recent investigation that named the people and companies responsible for orchestrating and controlling a multimillion dollar travel insurance fraud scam by helicopter charter companies and hospitals in Nepal.

 

Judging by the photographs of the wreckage, which is mostly burnt, and the fact that not all of the wreckage can be recovered due its location, it is unlikely that an actual cause for the crash will be determined, so foul play cannot be ruled out.

 

Charred crash site of the Tourism Ministers helicopter.

The high-profile crash has drawn attention to the lack of aviation safety standards in Nepal among some operators and what is more worrying is that if overloading was to blame for the crash, there are well over 50 travel insurance claims from last season alone where six and even seven tourists were loaded on to one helicopter to be flown from the Everest region back to Kathmandu.

 

This has also added additional challenges to Nepal’s ongoing efforts to be removed from the European ban list. Nepal airlines were banned from flying to Europe due to their weak safety standards. Officials say the latest crash has sent a negative message to the international arena about aviation safety in Nepal. Officials fear that the high profile cash could be another pretext for the EU to delay removing Nepal from the ban list.

 

In addition, a recent gold-smuggling racket has exposed several weaknesses in airport security at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu.

 

Along with Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari, the crash claimed the lives of the Deputy Director General of Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) Birendra Prasad, Deputy Director of CAAN Dhurba Bhochhibhoya, Yubaraj Dahal the Aide to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, the Ministers Bodyguard, Arhun Kumar Ghimire, Air Dynasty Chairman Ang Tshering Sherpa and the Pilot, Captain Prabhakar KC.

 

The purpose of the trip was to visit a proposed site for a new airport. That does not seem out of the ordinary, but the circumstances around the trip are shrouded in corruption.

 

In an investigation earlier this year, Minister Adhikari was found complicit in corruption and misappropriation of funds directly linked to the ordering of Boeing wide-body planes. It’s reported that the new airport was part of the Ministers plan to accommodate the planes and bring more tourists into the country.

 

The Chairman of Air Dynasty, Ang Tshering Sherpa who was also on the helicopter, was in talks with the Minister to fund the building of the new airport.

 

However, earlier this year Minister Adhikari had promised to investigate a multimillion dollar travel insurance fraud scam that not only implicated Air Dynasty, but also Ang Tshering Sherpa himself and two of his close business associates. The Deputy Director General of CAAN, Birendra Prasad had also been implicated.

 

A source close to the Prime Minister said, “If the helicopter did not crash, the public would not have known how close they worked together. This has caused the government embarrassment.” It was also speculated that the Prime Minister, who is tough on corruption, had requested that his aide go on the trip to “monitor conversations.”

 

Ang Tshering Sherpa and his business associate, Shyam Kandel (who also owns FCI Heli Charter and SWACON Hospital) is known to have donated and contributed financially to the Nepal Communist Party of which Rabindra Adhikari was a member of. Through Air Dynasty, they also provided helicopter rides for campaign visits.

 

It is alleged that Ang Tshering Sherpa, and other key industry people have orchestrated and control a scam that has defrauded millions of dollars from foreign travel insurers.

 

Soon after promising to tackle the insurance fraud, Minister Adhikari dropped the investigation after being pressured to do so by the co-Chair of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, Pushap Kamal Dahal.

 

However, after this was publicised, an ultimatum was issued by foreign insurers explaining that if the fraud was not stopped and those people responsible brought to justice, then insurers would boycott and blacklist the country.

 

Still to date, the Tourism Ministry have taken no action. No charges have been laid and no changes have been implemented to stop the fraud from happening in the future. In addition, no safety measures have been enforced to stop pilots from overloading helicopters with trekkers and patients, and no system has been put in place to stop passenger and cargo manifests from being forged, which has happened on several occasions.

 

As a result of the governments inaction, three major insurers have boycotted and blacklisted Nepal.

 

But, the issue at stake is whether defrauded money from insurers was traded for political favours?

 

Did it influence the investigation?

 

If not, why has the Tourism Ministry taken no action, even after they have admitted that the fraud is happening?

 

Just the act of laundering ill-gotten-gains through political donations and contributions is illegal. If it had a significant impact on the investigation, that’s a far more serious crime, and would certainly explain the governments propensity to point fingers at others rather than taking action against the perpetrators.

 

Perhaps by doing so, they would implicate themselves in the process.