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Turkish Airlines' Near Miss Creates Big Problem At Kathmandu's Tiny Airport

A Turkish Airlines jet skidded off a slippery runway Wednesday while landing in dense fog at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Niranjan Shreshta
A Turkish Airlines jet skidded off a slippery runway Wednesday while landing in dense fog at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Turkish Airlines has the first slot for landing at the Kathmandu airport, just after 6 a.m. In winter, this often means long hours circling over the hills south of the Kathmandu Valley and waiting for dense fog to lift. Wednesday wasn't any different. About 6 a.m. local time, Flight TK726 crossed from India to Nepal and the pilot advised passengers that fog over the airport meant a 90-minute delay. But not to worry, he said, there was plenty of fuel.

About 7:15 a.m., the Airbus A330 with 224 passengers attempted a landing but had to abort. The plane circled and then came in again. This time, passengers say the plane hit the ground hard, its nose bouncing up and down as it veered off the runway. The front landing gear collapsed and the plane came to a stop, its nose resting on the rain-soaked, grassy earth.

"The front of the plane started bumping up and down violently," said Stratos Tavoulareas, a senior energy adviser at the International Financial Corp., who was sitting in business class. "Then I realized we were off the runway and we came to a violent stop."

The plane was evacuated safely. Flight attendants even allowed people to take off their carry-on baggage. Airport and army personnel had already surrounded the plane to escort passengers to the terminal.

In many countries, this would have been the end of the story. But Tribhuvan International Airport is Nepal's only international airport. It's a small airport — with only one runway and nine parking bays — and it's bursting at the seams. On a normal day, it can barely cope with dozens of international and scores of national flights. A weather delay causes hourlong stack-ups in the skies. But the aftershocks from Wednesday's crash-landing highlight Nepal's crumbling infrastructure.

The airport was immediately closed to all but helicopter traffic. Flight TK726 has been sitting all day — nose down, tail up — right near the arrival terminal, with one wing just close enough to the runway to block the safe landing or takeoff of any other large aircraft. Thousands of passengers (for full disclosure, that also includes my husband) have either had their flights canceled or, if already in the air, been rerouted to Delhi and Lucknow in India and Dhaka in Bangladesh for an undetermined period that could last days. The U.S. Embassy sent out an advisory emphasizing that Nepal is essentially cut off from the rest of the world.

A central problem: The airport has no cranes, large winches or heavy equipment to move the plane.

An emergency meeting identified two large bulldozers belonging to the department of roads. Kathmandu has been in a massive road-widening spree, and bulldozers are not in short supply. But the airport cargo gate was too narrow for the bulldozers, so they slowly made their way to the southern end to knock down a security wall and gain access to the runway. Then Turkish Airlines officials told airport officials that no bulldozer could touch their plane.

As of late afternoon, Plan B involved flying in a repair kit — a Catch-22 when you don't have a workable runway. (It's not clear whether they considered a more DIY option: In the 1950s, King Mahendra had his porters carry his cars on their shoulders from the Indian border to Kathmandu.)

Living in Kathmandu, my son and I have become addicted to FlightRadar-24, an app that shows you air traffic anywhere in the world in real time. We're focused on our little section of Himalayan valley.

It's a tricky and steep landing into Kathmandu's airport. Pilots receive special training and the radar system is old, with black spots. Only two companies, Qatar and Korean Air, have satellite GPS, which allows for a more gradual landing. Kathmandu is both a tourist hub and a supplier of migrant labor to the Middle East, and every year, the number of international flights increases. With a husband working in Dhaka and traveling the region, Lucas and I always check on his arrivals and departures. For more than a year now, checking Turkish Airlines — whose delays have become legendary among the community of people who commute around the region — has become a wake-up ritual at home.

Today was no different. At 7:44 a.m., I checked Turkish Airlines' status. It read: "Landed." Omitted was the "crash."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Donatella Lorch