Who Controls Nepal’s Helicopters?
The country has just a handful of private helicopters, which are crucial to earthquake rescue operations. But are foreign trekkers the only ones who’ve benefitted?
At dawn on Monday, April 26, the sleek red and white fuselage of an AS350 B3 helicopter arrived at Base Camp on Mt. Everest. Approximately 42 hours before, a devastating, 7.8-magnitude earthquake had struck Nepal, and an avalanche had torn through the camp, injuring dozens of climbers, guides, and support staff. At least 20 people had been killed. The most severely injured patients had already been evacuated on Sunday, with heli pilots feeling their way down through fleeting holes that appeared amid scudding skies.
“Heavy clouds fill the valley below, but a tunnel beneath them allows the pilots to keep flying,” wrote Mike Hamill, an American Everest guide, in a dispatch for National Geographic. Such flying requires significant quantities of both bravery and skill.
The B3s returned on Monday to airlift more than 100 people down from Camp I and Camp II. The established mountaineer’s route between the two, through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall, had been destroyed. Three Sherpas were subsequently reported killed attempting to rebuild it when an aftershock struck. To just about everyone on the scene, an evacuation by helicopter seemed to be the most prudent decision. “It wasn’t going to be an ideal scenario, by any means…” wrote an American guide, Dave Hahn, afterward on the Rainer Mountaineering Inc blog. “Being ‘rescued’ from 20,000 feet (6,100 meters) on Mount Everest….But we weren’t likely to get any better offers.”
Meanwhile, for tens of thousands of Nepalis stuck in the country’s rural regions, there were no offers of help coming at all. Only now is word beginning to trickle out of the desperate need for supplies and search-and-rescue capabilities. The official death count has topped 6,000 people; some disaster specialists are now predicting a final toll of tens of thousands.
To many, the dichotomy between what happened on Everest in the days after the quake and what hasn’t been happening everywhere else is striking — and, to some, an outrage. “Why has so much attention been paid to the situation on Mt. Everest…compared to the rest of Nepal?” asked my friend Andrew Bisharat on his climbing blog, Evening Sends, on Monday. One reader, responding to a story I wrote for National Geographic, offered an answer: “First class service for first world citizens.”
The class politics of helicopter use is a relatively new phenomenon in a country where reaching isolated, rugged locales is a staple of tourism. Just five years ago, there was a single private heli operator in the entire country, along with the Nepali army’s decrepit fleet composed mainly of Alouettes and Mi-17s — many of which still carry patched-over bullet holes, reminders of Nepal’s decade long Maoist rebellion. Today, there are six primary commercial outfits, fielding a combined squadron of about two dozen ships. The most powerful, the B3s, are capable of flying to 23,000 feet to retrieve mountaineers. At lower altitudes, they can carry six passengers and are capable of landing in tough areas because of their superior lift.
As of November 2014, Nepal’s army was down to a single Mi-17, a much larger, Russian-made aircraft, with heavy lift capabilities. Meanwhile, there were eight private B3s serving the country. Thanks in no small part to lucrative insurance payouts for evacuating sick trekkers, private business was booming.
In the wake of the earthquake, it became immediately clear that choppers would be crucial to lifesaving rescue operations. Landslides have besieged Nepal, wrecking many sections of its already tenuous road system. People are trapped in remote villages — or what remain of them — while supplies are bottlenecked at the Tribhuvan International Airport, in Kathmandu. “The planning over many years seems to have failed to take account of the fact that hard to reach places — most of those badly hit — would remain hard to reach, after the quake,” wrote John Bevan, who has worked with the U.N. in Nepal and Haiti, in an email from Kathmandu.
Unsurprisingly, many Nepalese began desperately pleading for the country’s limited choppers. (To bolster Nepal’s fleet, at least eight choppers from the Indian military have joined rescue efforts, and Britain has pledged to send three of its own. On Friday, the U.S. State Department announced that Pentagon is sending helis too.) “Immediate we need RESCUE HELI to send food, tents and other necessary things to ROLWALING VALLEY,” cried one Sherpa friend, Ngawang Dorje, in a post on social media. “WHERE ARE THE HELICOPTERS? WHERE ARE THE SUPPLIES?” an American trekker wrote online. “The survivors of Langtang” — an area north of Kathmandu — “are suffering.”
Stories are emerging, however, of such pleas going unanswered, as private helicopters initially headed for foreigners, not locals. American Ben Ayers, a long-time resident of Nepal and country director for the Dzi Foundation, which focuses on sustainable development, weathered the quake in Chaurikharka, a village in the Khumbu Valley. He made it to the airport in nearby Lukla the next day. “We had a guy who was on the way out if we couldn’t get him to Kathmandu,” Ayers recounted by phone. A heli from one of domestic services that was refueling on its way to retrieve two foreign trekkers was asked to divert — but when the pilot requested permission, Ayers said, he was told by his manager to continue with the original mission.
Many Nepalis are directing their anger at their government. While private helis were airlifting mountaineers and trekkers earlier in the week, there were claims that authorities were unresponsive to requests to send whatever choppers were available to rural areas. “The government is f***g [sic] incapable and inefficient to help us,” wrote one Nepali friend, Mingma Tenzing, on Facebook. “Our family members, relatives, school children and teachers are stranded in Rolwaling. They survived but they are staying without proper shelter and food. We have been trying to send rescue helipcopter [sic] and food supplies for five days but we receive no attention from the home ministry, civil aviation and the district administration.”
Those controlling the private helicopters are Nepali, as are a large number of the pilots, and Kathmandu-based owners have built their businesses around one simple rule. “We can’t fly unless it is paid for, even in a rescue situation,” Captain Siddartha Gurung, the lead pilot and operations manager for Simrik Air, told me in November 2014.
A week after the earthquake, that rule may be changing: Reports from Kathmandu indicate that the government is now calling shots with the country’s private fleet. “The helicopters are under control of the Home Ministry now,” said Captain Bibek Khadka, a senior pilot with Simrik Air, in a phone call from Kathmandu. “Sometimes,” Khadka added, “we do flights for the army.”
Helicopters aren’t the only thing the government now seems eager to control. The prime minister’s office has set up a Disaster Relief Fund, to which the country’s central bank has ordered commercial banks to transfer the balance of all accounts established to collect recovery money. According to the April 30 order, which is circulating online, “The name of the individual or the organization opening the account, along with the description of the funds accumulated, must be daily made available.” Many Nepalis — as well as foreign aid groups — are distrustful of the news: Kunda Dixit, publisher and editor of the Nepali Times, tweeted: “Nepal Govt priorities: 1. 3 days of national mourning 2. Holidays for themselves 3. Channel donations to PM Relief Fund MOVE YOUR ASS!”
Amid confusion and frustration, the importance of the small community of helicopter aviators in Nepal can’t be overstated. With every flight they make, they are helping to save lives. Yet it does the pilots’ heroism no disservice to observe that the private fleet responded after the quake disproportionately and most effectively to people who have been their best customers.
Disaster response requires more than just helicopters, of course. Effective search and rescue in the mountains of Nepal also necessitates satellite phones, medical supplies, shelter, and warm clothing — things that foreign mountaineers and trekkers tend to bring with them. As was seen on Everest earlier this week, these items are capable of creating a bubble of first-world service amid Nepal’s infinite chaos.
For those watching from afar who have spent time in Nepal, this knowledge provokes more awkwardness than anger, and then — profound sadness. Even as we have been climbing their mountains, we’ve been living in a different world.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images