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Clouded views and blue certificates: Is it worth it?

Possible swan shot

Dramatic translucent smoke billowed out of the open cockpit doors into the narrow aisle. I espied the numerous shiny consoles and knob-headed levers fading into a thickening blanket from where I sat with my cameraman Santosh. My co-passengers, mostly pilgrims from Hyderabad and Mumbai began to panic. The startled murmurs reached a feverish crescendo to screams and shouts of alarm. The older ones, not yet willing to let go, began the ubiquitous chant ‘Om Namah Shiva’.

“Buddy, start rolling.” I told Santosh who sat frozen only for an instant. If this was how it was going to be, then might as well leave some dramatic footage for the television channel which hired me. I was on a ‘Himalayan view’ flight which took off from Kathmandu with the promise of bringing the passengers the ‘wonderful, wonderful views of the greatest mountain range in the world’.

Flight of fantasy

The air crash in Nepal that snuffed out 15 lives this May was widely reported in the Indian media as one of them was Taruni Sachdev who starred with Amitabh Bachchan in ‘Paa’. Taruni was a popular face in advertisement commercials and cinema; she was pretty, bubbly and talented. ‘Please god, may this not be true,’ tweeted Amitabh echoing the disbelief of the rest of the country at the horrific accident. The little Dornier aircraft which belonged to a local air company Agni was carrying 21 tourists from the touristy Pokhara to Muktinath, a pilgrimage centre, when it crashed at Jomsom, a trekking getaway, some 200 km from the capital Kathmandu. Apparently visibility got very limited during landing and the aircraft crashed into a muddy slope of a mountainside where it shattered into many pieces and submerged in slush. Pilot error? Engine failure? Unanswered questions. But the fact remains that this was the third such accident in as many years: In September last year, a plane belonging to Buddha Air, another local carrier (there are four prominent operators plying tourists locally in Nepal – Agni, Buddha, Guna and Yeti), crashed killing all 19 people on board. In 2010 another Agni aircraft disaster cost 14 lives.

Happy Himalayan views

Now, why am I talking about the accident a full two months later? I happened to be on many of these flights around the same time last year filming a series for a travel channel. And I got to know several people from the ground staff, pilots as well as pretty airhostesses, of course. And I also came to know how these flights are operated without respite – fagging out the machine as well as the men who fly them. As tourism grows in Nepal, as pilgrims from all over the world, mostly India, arrive in droves the flight operators are making hay while the sun shines. Even when the sun is not shining: Most of the crashes have been attributed to bad weather – poor visibility – than to engine failure or pilot error. I personally would like to take it with a pinch of salt as one pilot I spoke to while flying out of Pokhara told me that his remuneration was directly proportional to the number of trips he made. Besides being a pilot himself, he also trained budding pilots. The pilot of the flight I took from Kathmandu for the ‘Himalayan view’ – a tourist trap, especially during monsoon – told me he operated not less than a dozen such flights every day during season.

Never say die

In the ‘Himalayan view’ flight, the loud chanting was drowned out by the engine hum which grew into a rickety roar as we took off. It was the first time in my life I was flying in an aircraft which had the cockpit doors open. Unbelievably oblivious to the rising panic, the pilot’s workout-gloved hand picked out random buttons to shut off and levers to slide back and forth. Yes, it was just like how Harrison Ford did it – you pushed one gear slowly forward as the aircraft gathered speed. And another one is depressed gradually as it climbs. Finally when the cabin became pub-smoky, the intercom came alive with a cheery ‘good morning’ and great news of a weather ‘that wasn’t very friendly, but shouldn’t stop us from our mission of seeing the ‘wonderful, wonderful views of the greatest mountain range of earth’.

“Please look out of your right windows for the most beautiful sight you have ever seen.” There was a sudden quiet as everybody craned their necks to get a good view.

“For those sitting on the other side, I will be banking shortly.” Yahoo! But most didn’t seem to understand, probably the shock was only wearing off. I could see an affable old man dressed in saffron kurta and mundu was still counting out the beads of his holy necklace furiously.

There, there. Where?

The smoke had abated by now. And no, it wasn’t actually smoke, but a small hole in the cockpit floor above the landing gear perhaps, which sucked in a bit of hazy clouds; I was informed by the airhostess whom I spotted smiling with a wicked glee when the passengers were shouting for their lives. But she was so pretty I forgave her immediately. I even felt sorry for her when she seemed a bit down that the show was over. Anyway, the good news was that the smoke and the screams had stopped; the pilot had probably pulled over the carpet or placed his foot over the hole. She didn’t tell me that. But she gave me an official go-ahead to begin filming. Did I want to go to the cockpit to shoot? Oh yes, I would love to if I would not be endangering safety. No, the captain was very experienced and he could show me the different mountains. Oh, that would be wonderful, really. And we were in the cockpit.

Piloting in workout gloves

The captain pointed out different shapes through the windows and called out ‘Dhaulagiri, Kanchenjunga, Annapurna…’ almost like he was naming them right then and there. All I could see were clouds guffawing about in all directions. Perplexed after following the hands which had nothing but gigantic fluffy clouds meandering all over the horizon, Santosh finally explained with consternation.

“I suppose he is saying what is on the other side of the clouds.” No arguments here.

“The month of August is not really good for mountain flights,” he said seeing our puzzled look; Santosh had just zoomed in blindly which the pilot had ecstatically proclaimed as ‘Mount Everest’ which was again only a bunch of clouds.

“Why?’ I asked though I knew very well why by now.

“To see the mountains, you have to be up here during April or May when the weather is, well, clear.”

“Then why do you operate ‘Himalayan view’ flights in August?” I didn’t ask him that. I really liked these guys, they were so friendly and so eager to please. And they had allowed me into the cockpit while they were flying.

A pretty good...namaste

After we landed and was taxiing, we were all given sky-blue coloured certificates which we could probably frame for posterity – proudly proclaiming the bearer to have undertaken the ‘Himalayan view’ flight. I didn’t give much thought to it and though I did accept mine with good grace, I didn’t bother much to keep it safe. I lost it; then I lose something important whenever I am on a shoot – I am on to my third passport now. It is now that I really wished I hadn’t been so cavalier about it; it, as I realise now, could have been a testimony to my bravery. Or foolery. Depending on how you looked at it.

Conveyor cart

The flight that killed Taruni had taken off from Pokhara where I and Santosh had spent close to a week filming the famed Fewa Lake, the World Peace Pagoda, an interesting museum dedicated to mountaineers and some other less interesting stuff. Jomsom, where the flight was headed to, is known as the ‘gateway to the Himalayas’ due to its proximity to the mountain range. Jarring turbulences and an imploding sense of imminent doom are frequent in this route. The clangourous propellers that whoosh by right next to your window doesn’t do much to put you at ease either. The nearby Muktinath airstrip is surrounded by towering mountains that you almost expect to scrape the pinnacles as you come in to land even on a clear, normal day.

After we landed in Pokhara, we had to collect our luggage – only the camera was allowed in the cabin, the rest, our clothes and equipments all went into luggage.

“Where do we go to collect?” I asked the pretty airhostess who gave me an extra ration of Coke probably because I asked her to speak on camera. Or probably it was my knowledge of the Teej festival which was coming up the next day which impressed her. She replied seeing me off with a very lively ‘Namaste’.

“You don’t go anywhere to collect your luggage, it will come to you.”

One faggy day

True to her words, by the time we reached the side exit of the airport, there was a pushcart waiting with a guy standing inside the cart and dispensing the luggage upon production of identification tags. It looked so haphazard that I ran towards it suspecting somebody could have easily conned the man into parting with our expensive equipments. But it was all there.

“The camera equipment belongs to you guys, yes?” The pushcart man asked lifting the heavily padded light box towards me.

“Yes, it does.” I said taking it from him. “But how do you know?” There was more stuff inside the open cart.

“Oh yes, I know.” He replied. “Only camera guys have long hair.”

I was glad that no one else in the flight had long hair.

Those who died in Jomsom had hired the Dornier aircraft to take them on a sightseeing trip to Muktinath – a hotspot in the Hindu pilgrim circuit. There were a total of 21 people on the ill-fated flight of which 16 were Indians, two pilots, one attendant and two Danes.

Gimme a gun salute

“We were thrown around,” said Emilie Joergensen, one of the Danes who survived. “The seats were unfastened and we were squeezed between seats and bodies.” Emilie and her friend Andreas had to ‘climb over hands and arms’ to come out of the plane.

“I think it was easy for us to get out as we sat in the back and were closest to the exit,” Joergensen added.
Now that could be some handy news for those still raring for the ‘blue certificate’.

As I said, I lost mine.

All the photographs used here are grabs from the video footage courtesy Travel Trendz Television

One Comment »

  • Krishnan said:

    Hahahaha. Was an extremely fun read Thommen, keep it coming.

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