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17 years after her husband's accident in Nepal, a pilot suffers the same fate

2023-01-17T13:28:51.461Z


Anju Khatiwada, who died on Sunday in an accident in Pokhara, Nepal, decided to become a pilot after the death of her husband in 2006.


KATHMANDU, Nepal - When her husband, a pilot for a small Nepali airline, was killed in a plane crash in 2006, Anju Khatiwada made a promise: she

would continue her dream.

Despite her family's opposition, she abandoned her nursing career and pursued pilot training in the United States for years, raising her daughter with the help of her parents.

Upon her return to Nepal, in 2010 she began flying for the same company,

Yeti Airlines

, reaching the rank of captain after accumulating thousands of flight hours.

Nepalese rescuers inspect the wreckage of a crashed plane in Pokhara, Nepal, Monday, Jan. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Krishna Mani Baral)

On Sunday she suffered the same fate as her husband.

The twin-propeller plane he was co-piloting crashed 1.5 kilometers from the runway of a newly built airport in Pokhara, a Himalayan tourist destination.

Of the 72 people on board, the bodies of 69 had been recovered as of Monday, making it the deadliest air disaster in the country in decades.

"Anju's father had asked her not to choose the profession of a pilot," said Gopal Regmi, a relative and close friend of her father.

"After the tragic death of her husband, she was determined to become a pilot."

The family's twin calamities are part of a deadly pattern in Nepal.

The small South Asian nation has suffered a series of accidents and other aviation safety failures in recent decades, a worrying record blamed on difficult terrain and unpredictable weather, as well as

inadequate regulations

, poor fleets outdated and lagging technical capacity.

The Nepalese government appointed a five-member committee to investigate the latest crash, and the aircraft's flight data recorder was recovered on Monday.

The cause of the catastrophe was not clear;

Aviation experts warned that only an investigation could establish the exact reason why the plane, built some 15 years ago by French-Italian manufacturer ATR, crashed.

But experts said possible causes, based on video taken moments before the crash, could range from engine failure to a sudden loss of control by the pilot.

The video, recorded by eyewitnesses in the residential area surrounding the Pokhara airport, showed

a wing

of the ATR-72 suddenly dropping as the plane descended in clear skies.

It then plunged down a ravine and erupted in fire and smoke.

Another video, broadcast live on Facebook, was recorded inside the plane as it approached the runway and the passengers recovered the telephone signal.

It was spread by an Indian passenger, Sonu Jaiswal, who was traveling to a revered Hindu shrine and sight-seeing in and around Nepal with three friends from the same district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh where they lived.

In the 90-second video, Jaiswal, who worked as a liquor vendor, is seen wearing a yellow T-shirt.

He and his friends are seen exulting in the excitement of the landing before the plane jerks to the side.

Screams are briefly heard

before flames engulf the footage.

"Sonu was showing it live on Facebook. His phone must have burned when he stopped," explains his friend Vishal Kushwaha, who was going to participate in the trip but withdrew at the last minute due to a family illness.

"They were supposed to come back today."

Jaiswal's father, Rajendra Prasad Jaiswal, who was on his way to Nepal to identify the body, said he learned of the accident from his son's Facebook page.

The youngest of the Jaiswals leaves behind a wife, a 4-year-old daughter and an 8-month-old son.

Among the passengers on the plane were 53 Nepalis, five Indians, four Russians, two South Koreans and one person from Australia, Argentina, France and Ireland.

There were also four Nepali crew members.

Nepal has suffered more than

30 fatal plane crashes

since the early 1990s, according to the Aviation Safety Network.

In May 2021, 22 people died in the crash of a plane operated by Tara Air - a sister airline of Yeti - during a 20-minute flight from Pokhara to Jomsom, a trekking destination.

In 2016, the crash of another Tara Air flight from Pokhara to Jomsom killed 23 people.

Accidents have continued even as government officials have reported improvements in aviation regulations.

In 2009, a UN watchdog rated Nepal's implementation of security protocols at

47%, well below the acceptable level

at the time, and Nepalese airlines were blacklisted by the European Union.

That rating improved to 70% in 2022, when Nepal was last reviewed, according to the country's civil aviation agency.

But the audit, according to local media reports, continued to express concerns about deficiencies in air navigation, incident investigation and the organizational structure needed to enforce safety regulations.

Before the pandemic, Nepal had experienced a steady expansion of air transport, both domestic and international.

Tourism

,

which brings hundreds of millions of dollars to the country, one of the poorest in the region, has rebounded again after a sharp drop during the pandemic.

Experts and officials have long been concerned about the ability of airports to meet growing demand.

Nepal's difficult terrain, with some of the highest mountain ranges in the world, means that much air travel is done by small planes that travel between the country's nearly

four dozen

small airports.

Larger international flights are limited to the capital's main airport, Kathmandu.

A third international airport opened this month in Pokhara, the site of Sunday's crash, after construction financed by a $200 million Chinese loan.

Bijender Siwach, a retired military pilot and CEO of Aviation Safety India, a non-profit organization that conducts accident analysis and training, said videos of the accident suggested that weather and terrain

were not determining factors

. because the sky was clear and the plane was a short distance from the runway.

Although the definitive answers will only come with the investigation, Siwach said, the cause may have been

mechanical failure or a case of human error

that put the plane into what is known as a stall.

In such a case, the plane

slows down too much

to stay airborne and goes out of control.

"If it had happened at 5,000 or 10,000 feet, the plane could have recovered to 2,000 feet if the pilot had reacted," Siwach said.

"But because the altitude was too low, 200 or 300 feet maybe, the pilot didn't have a chance."

Yeti Airlines officials rejected earlier reports that the plane

had lost communication

with air traffic control towers.

Sudarshan Bartaula, a spokesman for the airline, said the airport had given clearance to land.

"The incident occurred about two kilometers from the airport, which takes 15-20 seconds to land there," he said.

Bartaula said that both the captain and the co-pilot had extensive experience.

Kamal KC, the 58-year-old captain, had 21,900 flight hours, while Khatiwada, 44, had 6,396 flight hours.

Khatiwada's husband, Dipak Pokhrel, was a military helicopter pilot before joining Yeti.

The Twin Otter utility plane she was co-piloting in 2006 crashed short of the Jumla airstrip, killing all nine people on board.

Her daughter, now an adult and living in Canada, was just 6 when Pokhrel died, Regmi, the relative, said.

He told the story of what Khatiwada had said during his interview to obtain the US visa that would allow him to undergo pilot training.

"I just want to wear the white uniform like my husband and work as a pilot," she said, according to Regmi.

Photos of her in her pilot uniform and messages of condolence circulated on social media on Monday.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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