New Nepal airport lacked landing system to help guide pilots in deadly crash

The newly opened airport in Nepal where a Yeti Airlines plane was attempting to land when it crashed over the weekend, killing all 72 on board, did not have a functioning instrument landing system that guides planes to the runway, an official said Thursday.

Airport won't have system operational for several more weeks, though it's not clear if it was a factor

Two women and a men appear forlorn, with one woman appearing to wipe a tear from her face.
Family members of victims who died in a Yeti Airlines plane crash are shown grieving outside a hospital in Pokhara, Nepal, on Tuesday. The Yeti Airlines ATR 72 crash on Jan. 15 was Nepal's worst aviation disaster since 1992. (Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

The newly opened airport in Nepal where a Yeti Airlines plane was attempting to land when it crashed over the weekend, killing all 72 on board, did not have a functioning instrument landing system that guides planes to the runway, an official said Thursday.

Aviation safety experts said it reflects the Himalayan country's poor air safety record, although the cause of the accident has not been determined.

Jagannath Niroula, a spokesperson for Nepal's Civil Aviation Authority, said Pokhara International Airport's instrument landing system will not be working until Feb. 26. The airport began operations on Jan. 1.

An instrument landing system helps airplanes fly safely when the pilot is unable to maintain visual contact with surrounding obstacles and the ground, mainly due to weather conditions or at night. Pilots can also fly by sight rather than relying on instruments.

Pilots say mountainous Nepal, where in-flight visibility problems are common, can be a difficult place to fly, but conditions at the time of the crash were good, with low winds, clear skies and temperatures well above freezing.

While it's still not clear what caused the crash, some aviation experts say video taken from the ground of the plane's last moments indicated it went into a stall, although it's unclear why.

Air safety 'not adequate': analyst

Amit Singh, an experienced pilot and founder of India's Safety Matters Foundation, said the lack of an instrument landing system or navigational aids could be a "contributory cause" of the crash and pointed to a "notoriously bad air safety culture in Nepal."

"Flying in Nepal becomes challenging if you don't have navigational aids and puts an extra workload on the pilot whenever they experience problems during a flight," Singh said. "Lack of an instrument landing system only reaffirms that Nepal's air safety culture is not adequate."

A man in a baseball cap and COVID mask crouches near a piece of fuselage from an airplane.
A French investigator takes a photo of the wreckage of a passenger plane at the crash site, in Pokhara, Nepal, on Wednesday. Canadian officials are also expected to offer help in the investigation. (Yunish Gurung/The Associated Press)

Yeti Airlines said the plane's cockpit voice recorder will be analyzed locally, but the flight data recorder will be sent to France. Both were retrieved Monday.

The twin-engine ATR 72-500 aircraft was flying from the capital, Kathmandu, to Pokhara, 200 kilometres to the west, when it plummeted into a gorge as it was approaching the airport. The crash site is about 1.6 kilometres from the runway at an elevation of about 820 metres.

The crash is Nepal's deadliest since 1992, when a Pakistan International Airlines plane plowed into a hill as it tried to land in Kathmandu, killing all 167 people on board. There have been 42 fatal plane crashes in Nepal since 1946, according to the Safety Matters Foundation.

A 2019 safety report from Nepal's Civil Aviation Authority said the country's "hostile topography" and "diverse weather patterns" were the biggest dangers to flights in the country.

EU demanding reforms

The European Union has banned airlines from Nepal from flying to the 27-nation bloc since 2013, citing weak safety standards. In 2017, the International Civil Aviation Organization cited improvements in Nepal's aviation sector, but the EU continues to demand administrative reforms.

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda met with bereaved families on Thursday and asked hospital authorities to expedite the remaining autopsies of some victims so their bodies can be handed over to their families.

Authorities said it was taking time to identify several bodies that were badly burned.

A man speaks while encircled by a large gathering of people in an outdoor setting.
Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, centre, speaks to officials during his visit to Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu, Nepal, on Thursday. Prachanda met with grieving families of the victims of Sunday's Yeti Airlines crash. (AP)

The aircraft's engines were made by Pratt & Whitney Canada. As a result, Canada's Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has said it will participate in the investigation.

Global Affairs Canada previously told CBC News that it was not aware of any Canadians who were on the plane, after consulting with local authorities.

In addition to people from Nepal, victims have been identified as being from Australia, Britain, India, South Korea and the United States.

With files from CBC News