Fifty people were killed when a Bangladeshi plane crashed and burst into flames near Kathmandu airport yesterday, in the worst aviation disaster to hit Nepal in nearly three decades.
Officials said there were 71 people on board the US-Bangla Airlines turboprop plane from Dhaka when it crashed just east of the runway and skidded into a nearby football field.
A top airport official said the pilot of US-Bangla Airlines flight BS211 did not follow landing instructions from the control tower, and had approached the airport’s one runway from the wrong direction.
“The airplane was not properly aligned with the runway. The tower repeatedly asked if the pilot was OK and the reply was ‘yes,’” said Raj Kumar Chetri, the airport’s general manager. But a recording of the conversations between the pilot and air traffic controllers indicated confusion over which direction the plane should land.
In the recording, posted by the air traffic monitoring website liveatc.net, conversation veers repeatedly about whether the pilot should land on the airport’s single runway from the south or the north.
Just before landing the pilot asks “Are we cleared to land?” Moments later, the controller comes back on, using a tone rarely heard in such conversations perhaps even panic and tells the pilot: “I say again, turn!”
Seconds later, the controller orders firetrucks onto the runway. The exact number of dead and injured remained unclear amid the chaos of the crash and the rush of badly injured people to nearby hospitals, but Brig. Gen. Gokul Bhandari, the Nepal army spokesman, said it was clear that at least 50 people had died.
Officials at Kathmandu Medical College, the closest hospital to the airport, said they were treating 16 survivors.
Meanwhile, the CEO of US-Bangla Airlines Imran Asif laid blame on Kathmandu’s air traffic control, saying the controller “fumbled” the landing. “Our pilot is an instructor of this Bombardier aircraft.
His flight hours are over 5,000 hours. There was a fumble from the control tower,” Asif told reporters outside the airline’s offices in Dhaka.
An airport source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there may have been confusion between air traffic control and the pilot over which end of Kathmandu’s sole runway referred to as ‘Runway 02’ and ‘Runway 20’, the plane was meant to land on.
A recording purportedly of the conversation between the controller and pilot has been published online. AFP could not independently verify the recording. Eyewitnesses said the plane, a Canadian-made Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprop crashed as it made a second approach towards the airport, shuddering violently as it lost height before hitting the ground and bursting into flames.
“It should have come straight but it went in the other direction… then it crashed towards the field,” said airport cleaner Sushil Chaudhary, who saw the crash. Desperate relatives searched for the names of their loved-ones on a list of casualties hung outside a hospital where most of the victims were taken.
One woman collapsed in tears after checking the list.
Another bewildered-looking survivor, 27-year-old Basanta Bohara, told AFP at a hospital that he couldn’t remember how he escaped from the burning wreckage. “I remember the accident. Nothing else. I don’t know how I got out,” Bohara said.
Airline spokesman Kamrul Islam said 33 of the passengers were Nepali, 32 were Bangladeshi, one each from China and the Maldives. Local media reported that many of the Nepali passengers were college students returning home for a holiday.
Kathmandu airport briefly closed after the accident, forcing inbound flights to divert, but it has since reopened. It is Nepal’s only international airport and experts say the mountainous landscape with the towering Himalayas to the north poses difficulties for pilots coming in to land.
“The landing at Kathmandu because of the terrain is a little challenging,” said Gabriele Ascenzo, a Canadian pilot who runs aviation safety courses in Nepal. Depending on the direction of approach, pilots have to fly over high terrain before making a steep descent towards the airport, Ascenzo added.
The accident is the deadliest since September 1992, when all 167 people aboard a Pakistan International Airlines plane were killed when it crashed as it approached Kathmandu airport.
Just two months earlier, a Thai Airways aircraft had crashed near the same airport, killing 113 people.
Nepal’s poor air safety record is largely blamed on inadequate maintenance and substandard management. Accidents are common and Nepal-based airlines are banned from flying in European Union airspace.
The Dhaka-based US-Bangla Airlines launched just four years ago and made its first international flight in May 2016 to Kathmandu. It has since expanded with routes to South Asia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In 2015 one of its planes overshot the runway on landing at Saidpur in northwest Bangladesh. There were no reports of injuries.
US considers lifting travel ban on Chad
United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday Washington was considering lifting a travel ban on Chad, offering an olive branch to a key ally in the fight against Islamist militant groups in West Africa.
The top U.S. diplomat flew into the Chadian capital N’Djamena on the last day of a truncated tour of Africa with stop-offs in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Nigeria, all frontline partners against Islamic State and al Qaeda off-shoots.
It was his first diplomatic visit to the continent where many are still smarting from U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported dismissal of states there as “shithole” countries in January. Trump later denied making the comment.
Tillerson said Chad had made important steps to strengthen control over its security and passports. “These steps I think are going to allow us to begin to normalise the travel relationship with Chad,” he told reporters.
A report on Chad’s progress was being prepared in Washington and would be reviewed by President Trump next month, Tillerson said. “We have to wait for the final report,” he added.
Tillerson, who had met Chad’s President Idriss Deby previously while serving as CEO of ExxonMobil, said he was concerned about the presence of Islamic State-allied militants in the Sahel and called Chad an “important partner”.
In September, The Trump White House added Chad along with North Korea and Venezuela to a list of countries whose citizens are restricted from travelling to the United States, drawing protests from Chad and others including France which works closely with the Chadian military.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland security said at the time Chad had to failed to send in proof that it had taken a number of security measures.
Chad’s President Deby “expressed his incomprehension” about the ban during a meeting with Tillerson on Monday, Foreign Minister Chérif Mahamat Zene said. Tillerson’s entourage earlier said he had been forced to cut short the African tour on Monday to return to deal with urgent work in Washington.
The Africa tour coincided with several urgent foreign policy developments, including Thursday’s announcement that U.S. President Donald Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Tillerson, 65, cancelled some events in Kenya on Saturday, saying he was feeling unwell.