(AFP) – Oct 8, 2008
KATHMANDU (AFP) — A passenger plane crashed on landing at a remote airfield in Nepal's Everest region on Wednesday, killing 18 people most of whom were German tourists, Nepalese officials said.
The Yeti Airlines aircraft, flying from the capital Kathmandu to Lukla in eastern Nepal, burst into flames after crash-landing near the sloping runway in heavy cloud, witnesses reported.
Of the 19 people on board, 14 were foreigners and five were Nepalese, and only one -- the Nepalese pilot of the Twin Otter plane -- survived, airport official Mohan Adhikari said.
"There were 12 Germans and two Australians on the flight," said Adhikari.
Officials earlier said the passenger manifest listed two of the tourists as Swiss, but they were later confirmed as Australian.
Security staff and volunteers took two hours to extinguish the fire in the wreckage of the plane.
Hundreds of tourists and residents from Lukla, 140 kilometres (90 miles) northeast of Kathmandu, watched the recovery operation, many in tears.
"I saw the plane start its descent, then cloud came in and we heard a loud noise and saw flames," said Bijaya Pratap Singha, a tour manager.
"We ran down to the end of the runway and saw everything was scattered and the plane was on fire."
Local officials told reporters the crash had been due to heavy cloud.
When the weather is clear, dozens of flights land every day at Lukla's Tenzing-Hillary airport, a gateway to Nepal's Everest region used by trekkers and mountaineers.
The airport was earlier this year renamed after Mount Everest's first conquerors, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
Just 20 metres (66 feet) wide and 550 metres long, its runway perches on a hillside at an angle of around 11 degrees and was built using funds from Hillary's Himalayan Trust.
Fast moving weather patterns at the tiny airport -- which is 2,757 metres above sea level -- mean bad weather frequently halts operations.
"We are devastated to hear of this accident," Ang Tsering Sherpa, the president of the Union of Asian Alpine Associations, told AFP.
"In the season there are up to 50 flights per day into Lukla so the pilots are very used to landing there."
Flights from Kathmandu to Lukla take just over half an hour.
The pilot who survived Wednesday's crash was flown to an intensive care unit in Kathmandu, where doctors said he was in a stable condition.
Yeti is a privately owned domestic airline founded in 1998 and which prides itself on running a service to many far-flung destinations across Nepal.
It has previously provided essential transport links to national and international relief teams working in Nepal as well as carrying many tourists.
The tourism trade is a major foreign currency earner for impoverished Nepal and since the end of a civil war in 2006 between the country's Maoists and the government, numbers of visitors have increased.
This year around 500,000 tourists are expected, the highest number since 1999, with many coming to trek in the stunning Himalayan mountains that form Nepal's northern border with Chinese-controlled Tibet.
The Everest Base Camp trek -- where tourists fly into Lukla and walk for around two weeks -- is one of the most popular routes.
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