Nepal Recovers Flight Recorders Following Fatal ATR 72 Crash

 - January 16, 2023, 7:45 AM
Yeti Airlines operated a fleet of six ATR 72-500s before Sunday's crash of the aircraft bearing registration 9N-ANC. (Photo: Yeti Airlines)

Search and rescue personnel in Nepal’s Kaski district recovered the flight data and cockpit voice recorders of Yeti Airlines Flight YT691 on Monday, a day after the ill-fated flight carrying 72 passengers violently crashed while on final approach to runway 12 of Pokhara International Airport.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), the ATR 72-500 turboprop bearing registration 9N-ANC departed Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport at 10:32 a.m. local time on January 15 bound for Pokhara’s newly inaugurated airport. The scheduled flight made final contact with Pokhara Tower at 10:50 a.m. before plunging abruptly into the steep bank of the Seti Gandaki River at approximately 11:05 a.m., some 1.12 nautical miles from the runway threshold, according to the Aviation Herald. Video footage from social media shows the twin-engine turboprop suddenly banking to the left while on base leg.

A total of 68 passengers and four crew members were on board the 27-minute domestic flight, CAAN said, including 57 Nepalis, five Indian nationals, four Russians, two South Koreans, and one citizen each from Argentina, Australia, France, and Ireland. Crews have recovered 69 bodies and authorities have identified 35 victims. Officials do not expect to find any survivors.

In a January 15 Twitter post, France's Bureau of Investigation and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA) confirmed that it would send a team of its investigators to assist Nepal in its probe. Aircraft manufacturer ATR also released a statement, stating it would “support both the investigation and the customer.”

Sunday’s crash not only marks Nepal’s deadliest aviation occurrence in 30 years but has also placed the country’s aviation safety record back into the spotlight. In 2013, the European Union added Nepali airlines to its list of banned carriers after a Dornier 228 operated by Sita Air crashed in 2012 while attempting an emergency landing at Tribhuvan International shortly after takeoff, killing all 19 people on board. In August 2017, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) removed Nepal from its Significant Safety Concern (SSC) list following multilateral assistance to resolve issues under the watchdog’s “No Country Left Behind’ initiative.

Boasting the highest mountain range in the world and prone to the forces of extreme weather patterns, including adiabatic and katabatic wind flows, the Himalayan state has witnessed a number of serious incidents and accidents, including several Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) occurrences and crash landings, involving short takeoff and landing (STOL) operations, which is rather ubiquitous in mountainous Nepal.

Counting yesterday’s crash, Yeti Airlines has suffered four fatal air accidents since 2013; its subsidiary Tara Air has had three deadly CFIT accidents, including one in May 2022, when a DHC-6-300 Twin Otter carrying 22 people struck the side of a mountain during a scheduled domestic flight from Pokhara to the popular tourist town of Jomsom in central Nepal. The accident followed a 2016 occurrence involving a recently acquired Twin Otter on the same route and a 2010 crash involving the same type on a domestic flight from Lamidanda Airport to Tribhuvan. Yeti Airline’s accidents in 2008, 2006, and 2004 also involved Twin Otter aircraft on domestic routes. Yesterday’s accident was Nepal’s first ATR 72 crash.

In 2016, an Air Kasthamandap single-engine P750 XL passenger plane experienced engine failure while attempting an emergency landing and crashed, killing two crew members, and injuring all nine passengers. Meanwhile, a US-Bangla Airlines’ 76-seat Bombardier Q400 turboprop crashed landed at Tribhuvan International in 2018 killing 51 of the 71 people aboard. 

According to FlightRadar24, the latest crash involves a 15-year-old ATR 72-500 equipped with an old transponder transmitting erroneous altitude and speed data. “At 05:05 UTC time the transponder stopped transmitting position data. The last signal from the transponder was received at 05:12 UTC time at an altitude of 2875 feet AMSL. Pokhara Airport is located at about 2700-2800 feet AMSL,” FlightRadar24 said in a Twitter post on Sunday.

Prior to Sunday’s crash, Yeti Airlines operated a fleet of six ATR 72-500s. The twin turboprop (tail number 9N-ANC), managed by lessor Investec Bank and owned by KF Turbo Leasing, was acquired by the carrier in 2019. The aircraft was previously used by the now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines and Thailand’s Nok Air, according to Cirium data.

Located roughly 1.9 miles from Pokhara's old domestic gateway, the new 4D category airport opened in January and caters to aircraft no larger than the Boeing 737 series. According to the operator, Runway 12 has a Non-Precision Approach (NPA) while Runway 30 uses a Category 1 Instrument System (CAT 1 ILS) approach. Authorities expect Pokhara International to handle one million passengers per year.