Forest Ray, PhD
Forest is a US Army veteran, freelance journalist and Pushcart-nominated writer, covering science, culture, travel and social justice from around the globe.
Poor aviation safety standards, rescue scams and faulty trekking equipment in Nepal
In recent months, Nepal has been plagued with a series of scandals related to fraudulent activity and poor safety standards in its aviation and tourism industries. Airplanes have run off runways, a helicopter crashed into a mountainside, killing the Minister of Tourism and now, a Malaysian climber has died in hospital, following a contentious high-altitude helicopter rescue.
In April of this year, Natalie Rogers suffered frostbite to her fingers while trekking in Nepal’s Everest region. Brought to a Kathmandu hospital via helicopter, a man presented Rogers on her hospital bed with a rescue bill of close to ten thousand US dollars from a local company and told she would not be able to leave the country until she paid it.
Rodgers said, “A Nepalese man came to my room in the hospital from [what he called] a rescue company, gave me an invoice and asked for my credit card. I explained I didn’t have the money to pay for the helicopter and that I had travel insurance for that.”
Rodgers added, “He told me I must find a way to pay the bill and claim it back from my insurer. He warned me that if I didn’t pay, I would be stopped at the airport from leaving Nepal.”
The traveller contacted her UK based travel insurer who immediately activated the medical assistance services of Traveller Assist, a company who recently spearheaded a lengthy investigation into a helicopter rescue scam in Nepal that defrauded millions of pounds from foreign travel insurers.
Upon further investigation, it was found that seven passengers plus the pilot were onboard the same helicopter from Lukla to Kathmandu. The aircraft was an Airbus AS350 B3e, with a maximum capacity of six passengers plus the pilot.
One of the Case Managers at Traveller Assist, Sarah Jansen, said, “This is not the first time we have seen evidence of helicopters being flown over maximum weight or above maximum altitude in Nepal. It’s a systematic problem and it’s placing the lives of trekkers in danger.”
In Rodgers’s case, the local ‘rescue’ company had tried to send claims to five separate insurers, all for different amounts, in what would have totaled $33,000 USD.
Jonathan Bancroft, Managing Director of Traveller Assist added, “It’s an old scam with a new twist. In recent weeks, we’ve seen evidence of local assistance companies, heli charter operators and even hospitals in Nepal trying to take exorbitant payments from travellers who were told the insurer had approved it, when they hadn’t.”
Traveller Assist intervened and reduced the total bill to $4,500 USD shared between five insurers, and bypassed the so-called local ‘rescue’ company, paying the money directly to the helicopter operator.
A heroic rescue despite failed safety standards
In a recent case in Nepal that gripped the media, Malaysian mountaineer Wui Kin Chin was left alone by his guide while climbing Mount Annapurna with Seven Summit Treks. While the precise details surrounding the situation are still coming to light, Mr. Chin survived at an altitude of 7,500 m for 43-hours, without a tent or bottled oxygen, and without water or food.
Mr. Chin had been reported missing when his guide, Nima Tshering Sherpa, returned to base camp without the mountaineer. According to local press, Tshering Sherpa had stayed with Chin for as long as possible, but when his oxygen started running low, he descended to try and get help. He gave Chin his own oxygen cylinder, enabling Chin to survive overnight above Camp IV. Tshering Sherpa then descended to base camp in search of rescuers and replacement oxygen. Along the way, he suffered frostbite and spinal injuries that have put his career in jeopardy.
A call was made to medical evacuation company, Global Rescue who Chin held a membership with, but it was reported that Chin was above 7,100 m which is the maximum safe operating altitude of the rescue helicopters in Nepal. Further complicating matters, Mr. Chin’s exact location was not known.
Global Rescue CEO, Dan Richards said, “Global Rescue has operated for the benefit of our members climbing and trekking in Nepal for more than a decade and we always abide by all laws and regulations, which include not sending a helicopter above its safe maximum altitude, lift weight or flying in the Himalaya at night.”
Mr. Chin’s wife then offered to pay a local helicopter provider what is reported to be $40,000 USD to search for her husband. Despite not only being above the maximum safe altitude that the helicopter manufacturer recommends, and despite being against aviation law in Nepal, Simrik Air agreed to take the money and conduct the search.
Simrik Air pilot Siddhartha Gurung said, “The climber was seen waving his hands at an altitude of 7,500 meters. I saw him waving at us from about 50-60 meters away.”
A long-line rescue was then conducted by Nirmla ‘Nims’ Purja, a former British Army Gurkha and UK Special Forces operator who placed his attempt of a World Record on-hold to conduct the rescue. Nims is currently attempting to climb all 14 of the highest Himalayan peaks in just seven months, called Project Possible.
The heroic actions of Nims without question saved the life of Malaysian mountaineer Wui Kin Chin, and was nothing short of extraordinary.
Of course this could not have been achieved without the equally heroic actions of the Simrik Air helicopter pilot, Bibek Khadka who flew the rescue mission.
Although we must applaud the rescue of Chin, the operation simultaneously highlights persistent gaps in Nepalese aviation safety standards, for having placed the lives of the pilot, rescue team and casualty in grave danger.
Tim Riley, Managing Director of UK based travel insurer, True Traveller said, “The responsibility of any insurer is to use all reasonable measures to evacuate a policyholder and take them to a centre of medical excellence. If they are above the maximum height that a heli can safely reach them, then their guide and/or team of travelling companions would need to assist them in getting to a lower altitude where it’s safe to be heli-lifted from.”
The rescue aircraft was an Airbus AS350 B3e helicopter with an operational limitation of 7,010 m (23,000 ft) maximum altitude. The aviation laws in Nepal state that an aircraft should not be flown to exceed the manufacturers guidelines.
This rescue was carried out at 7,500 m (24,606 ft), meaning the aircraft would have been flying close to 7,700 m (25,262 ft), over 2,000 ft above the recommended safe altitude set by the manufacturer and certainly contravening local aviation laws.
An official at Airbus commented, “While we are proud that one of our aircraft was able to perform a rescue at such a high altitude, we would strongly advise any pilot against flying this type of aircraft to such extremes.”
Global Rescue participated in the swift and effective evacuation of Wiu Kin Chin to a hospital in Kathmandu once he was at a safe altitude to do so, and then provided a medical evacuation via air ambulance to his home country of Singapore.
Global Rescue stated that they have incurred well over $75K in direct costs for the mission in total and confirmed that they will be billed at least $25K by Simrik Air. They added that they are still trying to get an itemized invoice from Simrik Air in the interest of protecting Chin’s family from being double billed.
Sadly, on the afternoon of May 2nd, Mr. Chin passed away in a Singapore hospital.
Dan Richards added, “We are saddened by the news of Mr. Chin’s passing and extend our deepest condolences to his family.”
There is close correlation between the lack of aviation standards in Nepal and a helicopter rescue scam that has plagued the country since at least 2013. In particular, the government has failed to take any visible action to correct either, despite repeated promises.
Lives are being placed in jeopardy as local providers favour profit over safety and both the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal and the Tourism Ministry have proven themselves to be powerless in stopping the fraud and safety violations from happening, despite their public promises to the contrary.
A recent report in the Himalayan Times has also highlighted a deficiency in training standards for security and police personnel at airports throughout Nepal.
Andy Blackwell an aviation security expert with 3D Assurance said, “Failure to provide robust safety and security awareness training to staff, particularly those working in hazardous environments, significantly increases the likelihood of harmful events occurring. Responsible organisations grow positive security cultures and use safety and security management systems to provide their organisations with resilience, assurance and peace of mind.”
Multiple files of evidence were delivered to the Home Ministry by Traveller Assist proving that in over one thousand cases, that acts of fraud and safety violations had occurred. Again, despite the Ministry’s public promises to take action, not one single charge has been laid against any company owner and not one single change has been made to improve the safety of the trekking industry in Nepal, or to enforce aviation standards.
Bancroft added, “We found several helicopter charter companies and two local assistance providers in Nepal to be faking flight manifests and load sheets. Some show only one passenger so they could bill the insurer the whole amount, when in fact there were several travellers onboard and they planned to bill all of the insurers in what’s known as ‘multiple-billing.’”
In several cases, up to seven passengers and their packs, plus a pilot were flown to Kathmandu from the Everest region, overloading the aircraft and placing everyone’s safety onboard at risk. However, no flight manifest would ever show this. Insurers were then billed up to a total of $35,000 USD for one helicopter that should have cost a maximum of $5,000 USD.
Nepal as a country relies on its tourism industry, but while local operators continue to break the law and bypass safety regulations, international insurers are considering boycotting and blacklisting the country, which will have a devastating affect on the local economy.
A recent New York Times report has touched on a major problem plaguing Nepal. Old and faulty equipment that trekkers and mountaineers alike rely on to safely summit the Himalayas highest peaks.
Some unscrupulous trekking agencies in Nepal have recently been named in the media for not only purposely making travellers sick to profit from their helicopter rescue, but also for issuing fake permits to mountaineers to summit Everest.
The recent case of Wui Kin Chin has highlighted yet another incident of insufficient oxygen being provided for expeditions by a trekking operator, in an industry that remains largely unregulated in Nepal.
The delay in launching the rescue of Chin stemmed from the fact that an inadequate amount of oxygen was held in reserve at base camp to launch a rescue operation.
According to Ash Routen, a journalist for Explorers Web and regular writer on Nepal, “If the climber is a paying client, provision of adequate oxygen is the responsibility of the guiding company. How much the climber needs will be worked out in advance and based on the company and climbers previous experience.”
This raises an important question, where does the duty of care responsibility and liability begin and end for trekking operators in Nepal?
In the case of Chin, he paid Seven Summit Treks close to twenty-thousand dollars to safely guide him to the summit, and back to base camp.
In 2018, the Tourism Ministry of Nepal announced that they were putting the responsibility of rescues for trekkers solely on the trekking organisation.
The delay in Chin’s rescue due to lack of oxygen seems to indicate that the Tourism Ministry has failed to enforce yet another public promise they have made to keep travellers safe.
Captain Steve Bokan, a helicopter pilot with considerable experience flying in Nepal, says that foreign pilots working in Nepal have long expressed concern for Nepal’s lack of aviation safety standard enforcement. “For instance,” he said, “you can easily watch aircraft flying at night and in IFR conditions (those that require specialized equipment to fly through adverse conditions), when they are clearly placarded “Day VFR only” (that is, the aircraft is only rated to fly during the day and must maintain visual contact with the ground).”
Multiple sources within the helicopter pilot community say that pilots feel considerable pressure to not report any observed failings. Foreign pilots, notes Cpt. Bokan, “will have their visas cancelled for reporting problems.”
It is enough to take the measured risks involved in trekking and climbing Nepal’s Himalaya Mountains. The risks to life from poor regulation, failed safety standards and faulty equipment are unnecessary and unacceptable.
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