Helicopters have become the single most important mode of transport in Nepal since a massive quake wreaked havoc in the mountainous country two weeks ago.
Initially it was the injured—estimated by the government at more than 16,000—dispersed across a constellation of remote villages that taxed Nepal’s small helicopter fleet. When the earthquake struck, the Nepal Army only had nine functioning helicopters, plus approximately 22 more belonging to private operators.
“Even if we had 40 more helicopters, it would have been insufficient,” says Birendra Prasad Shrestha, acting general manager of Tribhuvan International Airport, in Kathmandu, describing the urgent need to reach victims in the immediate aftermath of the quake.
How those few aircraft were deployed in the immediate hours and days after the quake provoked cries of unfairness and government negligence from many Nepalis.
“They only thought about taking the foreigners out,” said Lhakpa Jangba, a resident of Kyangjin Gompa in the Langtang Valley of Rasuwa District—one of the hardest hit areas. “We were nothing. We have no power. You know, our government is nonsense, and we have no leaders or elections in our village for so many years, so we can do nothing. We are like orphans,” he added.
They only thought about taking the foreigners out.
Now, mounting demands for emergency supplies across the country have completely overwhelmed their capabilities, prompting India, China, and the United States to contribute 23 more helicopters to the relief efforts.
We Lost Hope
In Nepal, one of the most mountainous countries on earth, helicopters are a highly logical, if prohibitively expensive, mode of transportation. Under normal circumstances, its road network is unreliable, poorly maintained, and beset by numerous landslides and washouts, yet airworthy helicopters have remained in short supply. Half the military’s fleet, in fact, are currently inoperable, down with mechanical problems, while even some of its functioning aircraft bear patched over bullet holes, scars from the decade-long Maoist insurgency.
Meanwhile, in the days after the disaster, many of the commercial helicopter companies prioritized picking up stranded foreigners to rescuing locals with serious medical issues.
“Some strong healthy foreigners tried to board,” said Lhakpa Jangba, describing one scene which unfolded in his village. “I was angry so I talked to the pilot and said “our people are dying, they need help. You need to send helicopters for us.” But he said “No, we came for the NGO workers and the foreigners.” We lost hope.” Jangba was eventually evacuated to Kathmandu, where he is camped with approximately 100 Langtang refuges near Swayambhunath, the religious site known to tourists as “the Monkey Temple.”
“When I spoke to the helicopter companies they said ‘We wont go to Langtang because you people are dangerous,’” Jangba said.
Another such plea, written by Ngawang Sherpa on Facebook, read: “Immediate we need RESCUE HELI to send food, tents and other necessary things to ROLWALING VALLEY.”
Meanwhile, more than 100 foreign mountaineers and their Nepali staff were airlifted from Camp 1 on Mount Everest by private helicopters after guides determined the route through the treacherous Khumbu Icefall could not be easily repaired. The unsavory optics of wealthy Western tourists being efficiently rescued while locals suffered angered many.
“These helicopter companies have been using our land to make their businesses for 10-15 years, they have made their money bringing people here and now they are not helping us,” Jangba said. “This is the world, where people only take care of themselves.”
Aid, Bureaucracy, and Red Tape
Soon after the air evacuation on Everest, the private fleet was requisitioned by the Nepali government, while foreign military helicopters from India, China, and the US arrived to help.
This buildup of air capability also reflects a shift from immediate search-and-rescue missions to longer-term supply delivery and relief. The workhorse of the commercial companies is the Eurocopter AS 350, a single engine, single rotor aircraft with a cabin about the size of a small SUV that’s capable of transporting five or six passengers—or about a ton of equipment. Both China and India have deployed Mi-17s, much larger, twin engine machines capable of carrying 30 people, or over 4 tons of supplies.
China sent three MI-17s, India sent eight. The US Air Force, meanwhile contributed four V-22 Ospreys—twin engine aircraft that take off and land vertically like a helicopter and move through the air like a propeller-driven airplane.
Yet even as foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations mobilized to help Nepalis, financial and logistical bottlenecks appear to be keeping a significant amount of aid from flowing beyond the Kathmandu Valley to other parts of the country in dire need.
The main bottleneck has been Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA)—a one-runway facility with adjoining helipad, military base, and customs house that is the logistical hub of relief efforts. The government’s tight control over its airspace and operations seem not to have been adjusted in light of the emergency. “We’ve been sitting on a ramp in Okinawa for the last 72 hours,” waiting for permission to land at Kathmandu,” Marine pilot Lt. Col. Edward Powers told the New York Times, after the C-17 aircraft carrying his helicopter finally landed at TIA.
Other reports have surfaced describing helicopters bearing search and rescue specialists and emergency supplies being delayed at TIA for hours each morning awaiting takeoff clearance. In Nepal, the mountainous terrain often results in afternoon cloud buildup, making the early morning hours crucial for clear flying.
Customs officials have come under criticism for holding up relief supplies by insisting that normal inspections and import procedure be followed. Last week, Laxmi Prasad Dhakal, a spokesperson for the home ministry, defended the policy, telling reporters, “This is something we need to do.”
The performance of some of the aircraft in Nepal’s high-altitude environment has also proved to be a problem. On Tuesday, the Kathmandu Post reported that the Ospreys were “useless” after an initial flight to the Dolakha District damaged buildings.
“I was at my office when the Osprey came and the roof of my office was also blown away,” said Bikram Karka, who works for the District Development Committee in the town of Charikot. “Thank god no-one outside was hit with those tin sheets, which could have taken the lives… The boundary walls, the roof of open waiting space outside our office—those safe in the earthquake fell down due to that helicopter.”
I was at my office when the Osprey came and the roof of my office was also blown away.
Karka added that angry locals parked their motorbikes on the helipad to prevent future landings. “It has not come again,” he said.
Meanwhile, three CH-47 Chinooks—large, twin engine, twin rotor helicopters—dispatched by the United Kingdom were held up in New Delhi for several days, only to have the Nepal Government ultimately send them home, citing concerns about their efficiency in Nepal’s mountainous terrain.
“Coordination for any functioning government would be an uphill challenge,” wrote Seira Tamang, a Nepali Political scientist, in an opinion piece in the Kathmandu Post. “But this is not just ‘any government’ and it has never been the most ‘functioning’, even before the earthquake, especially in terms of the prioritization of the delivery of goods and services to the people.”
As the Monsoon Approaches, Unequal Distribution
As of May 6, 334 tons of supplies had been airlifted to remote villages, while 4,520 people and the bodies of victims were evacuated, said Brigadier General Jagadish Chandra Pokharel of the Nepal Army in an interview with National Geographic.
“Ministry of Home Affairs sets the priority with the quantities to send on to needy places,” he said. “We carry them on all possible ways.”
Yet much work remains to be done. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 255,954 houses were destroyed in the earthquake, and another 234,102 damaged. With the heavy rains of the monsoon season due to arrive by the second week of June, tarps and tents are among the most needed supplies.
“The monsoon will likely trigger a new wave of landslides, as existing landslides remain unstable and other slopes that have been loosened may give way once they become saturated—not to mention the risk of another aftershock at a time when slopes are saturated,” wrote Austin Lord, a Fulbright Anthropology scholar currently working in Nepal. “New slides could damage homes, fields, and roads creating additional kinds of insecurity; and the rain itself could create increased health risks in impermanent settlements.”
“Timely aid and planning that accounts for the new risks of the monsoon will bring are extremely important,” he said.
Freddie Wilkinson is a writer and climber based in New Hampshire. Additional reporting provided by Pradeep Bashyal, in Kathmandu.