When her husband, a pilot for a small Nepali airline, died in a 2006 plane crash, Anju Khatiwada made a vow: She would continue his dream.
In the face of family opposition, she gave up her nursing career and pursued years of pilot training in the United States, raising her daughter with the help of her parents. Upon her return to Nepal, she took up flying for the same company, Yeti Airlines, in 2010, rising to the rank of captain after racking up thousands of hours of in the air.
On Sunday, she met the same fate as her husband. The twin-engine propeller plane she was co-piloting crashed about a mile from the landing strip at a newly built airport in Pokhara, a Himalayan vacation destination. Of the 72 people on board, the bodies of 69 had been recovered by Monday, making it the country’s deadliest air disaster in decades.
“Anju’s father had asked her not to choose the pilot profession,” said Gopal Regmi, a relative and close friend of her father’s. “After her husband’s tragic death, she was determined to become a pilot.”
The family’s twin calamities are part of a deadly pattern in Nepal. The small South Asian nation has suffered a series of crashes and other aviation safety lapses in recent decades, a troubling record attributed to difficult terrain and unpredictable weather, as well as inadequate regulation, aging fleets and lagging technical capacity.
Nepal’s government appointed a five-member committee to investigate the latest crash, and the aircraft’s flight data recorder was recovered on Monday. The cause of the disaster was unclear; aviation experts cautioned that only an inquiry could establish the exact reason that the plane, built about 15 years ago by the French-Italian manufacturer ATR, went down.
But experts said the possible causes, based on video captured moments before the crash, could range from engine failure to a sudden loss of control by the pilot. The video, taken by eyewitnesses in the residential area around the Pokhara airport, showed one wing of the ATR-72 drop suddenly as the plane descended in clear skies. It then plunged into a gorge and erupted in fire and smoke.
The passenger plane was flying low before it crashed in the city of Pokhara with 72 people on board.CreditCredit…Krishna Mani Baral/Associated Press
Another video, a livestream on Facebook, was filmed inside the aircraft as it approached the runway and passengers regained phone signals. It was broadcast by an Indian passenger, Sonu Jaiswal, who was traveling to a revered Hindu shrine and seeing sights around Nepal with three friends from the same district, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh where they lived.
In the 90-second livestream, Mr. Jaiswal, who worked as a liquor salesman, is shown wearing a yellow sweater. He and his friends can be seen exulting in the landing excitement before the aircraft swings sharply to one side. Cries are briefly heard before flames take over the images.
“Sonu was showing it live on Facebook. His mobile must have been burned when it stopped,” said his friend Vishal Kushwaha, who was supposed to have been on the tour but dropped out at the last minute because of a family illness. “They were supposed to come back today.”
Mr. Jaiswal’s father, Rajendra Prasad Jaiswal, who was on his way to Nepal to identify the body, said he learned of the crash from his son’s Facebook page. The younger Mr. Jaiswal leaves behind his wife, a 4-year-old daughter and an 8-month-old son.
The passengers on the plane included 53 Nepalis, five Indians, four Russians, two South Koreans and one person each from Australia, Argentina, France and Ireland. There were also four Nepali crew members.
Nepal has had more than 30 deadly air crashes since the early 1990s, according to the Aviation Safety Network. In May 2021, 22 people died in the crash of a plane operated by Tara Air — a Yeti sister airline — during a 20-minute flight from Pokhara to Jomsom, a trekking destination. In 2016, the crash of another Tara Air flight from Pokhara to Jomsom killed 23 people.
The crashes have continued even as government officials have reported improvements in aviation standards. In 2009, a U.N. watchdog ranked Nepal’s implementation of safety protocols at 47 percent, well below the acceptable benchmark at the time, and Nepali airlines were blacklisted by the European Union. That ranking improved to 70 percent in 2022, when Nepal was last reviewed, the country’s civil aviation agency said.
But the audit, according to local news media reports, still expressed concerns over shortcomings in air navigation, investigation of incidents and the organizational structure necessary for implementing safety standards.
Before the pandemic, Nepal had seen a steady expansion of air travel, both domestic and international. Tourism, which brings hundreds of millions of dollars into the country, one of the poorest in the region, has been picking up again after a sharp drop during the pandemic. Experts and officials have long been concerned about airports’ ability to meet the expanded demand.
Nepal’s difficult terrain, with some of the highest mountain ranges in the world, means that a large share of air travel is carried out on small planes that travel between the country’s nearly four dozen small airports. Larger, international flights are mostly limited to Nepal’s main airport in the capital, Kathmandu. A third international airport was inaugurated this month in Pokhara, the site of Sunday’s crash, after construction funded by a $200 million Chinese loan.
Bijender Siwach, a retired military pilot and the director general of Aviation Safety India, a nonprofit that conducts training and accident analysis, said that the videos of the accident suggested that weather and terrain were not factors, because the skies were clear and the aircraft was in close range of the landing strip.
While definitive answers will come only from the investigation, Mr. Siwach said, the cause may have been mechanical failure or a case of human error that put the plane into what is known as a stall. In such a case, the aircraft slows down too much to be able to remain aloft and goes out of control.
“If it had happened at 5,000 or 10,000 feet, the aircraft could have recovered at 2,000 feet if the pilot had responded,” Mr. Siwach said. “But because the height was too low, 200 or 300 feet maybe, the pilot had no chance.”
Officials from Yeti Airlines rejected earlier reports that the aircraft had lost communication with the air traffic control towers. Sudarshan Bartaula, a spokesman for the airline, said the airport had been given clearance to land.
“The incident happened about two kilometers away from the airport, which takes 15 to 20 seconds to land there,” he said.
Mr. Bartaula said both the captain and co-pilot had ample experience. Kamal K.C., the 58-year old captain, had 21,900 hours of flying time, while Ms. Khatiwada, 44, had 6,396 hours of flying history.
Ms. Khatiwada’s husband, Dipak Pokhrel, was a military helicopter pilot before joining Yeti. The Twin Otter utility aircraft he was co-piloting in 2006 crashed just short of the landing strip in Jumla, killing the nine people on board.
Their daughter, now an adult living in Canada, was just 6 when Mr. Pokhrel died, said the relative, Mr. Regmi.
He recounted the story of what Ms. Khatiwada had said during her interview for the U.S. visa that would allow her to go for pilot training.
“I just want to wear the white uniform like my husband and work as a pilot,” she said, according to Mr. Regmi.
On Monday, photos of her in her pilot uniform circulated on social media with condolence messages.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting from New Delhi.