By Rajneesh Bhandari and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Katmandu, Nepal, and New Delhi — Two Americans were among 19 people killed Sunday in Nepal when a small plane carrying tourists to view Mt. Everest crashed as it tried to land in rain and dense fog, police said.
The crash of the Beechcraft 1900D aircraft operated by Buddha Air went down in Kotdanda, about 10 miles from the capital, Katmandu, killing everyone aboard just minutes before its scheduled return to Tribhuvan International Airport.
The $140 Buddha Air “Everest Experience” package flies tourists from Katmandu around the world’s tallest mountain and back.
“The plane was flying very low,” a witness told the local Avenues Television network. “We were surprised. It crashed into the hill and there was a huge explosion.”
Others reported seeing flames coming from the plane just before it crashed.
Buddha Air said the names of the two Americans killed were Andrew Wade and Natalie Neilan. No other details were immediately available.
The airline said the other 14 passengers were 10 Indians — many reportedly real estate developers from the southern state of Tamil Nadu — along with three Nepalis and one Japanese. The two dead pilots and one flight attendant were Nepali.
The early morning flight reportedly had its last contact with air traffic controllers at 7:31 before crashing four minutes later. Officials said 18 of those aboard died immediately and the others died on the way to or shortly after arriving at the hospital. The bodies were brought to a local teaching hospital for postmortems, aviation authorities said.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal said that it had formed a three-member investigation team headed by a former director of the authority and that the flight data and voice recorders had been recovered.
Kapil Kaul, an expert with the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation in New Delhi, said Beechcraft planes — manufactured by Raytheon — have a good reputation. But, as is always the case, a great deal depends on training, the conditions they are flown in and how well they are maintained.
The crash comes at a bad time for Nepal, which is hoping to attract 1 million tourists this year to revive its flagging economy.
Though it’s too early to speculate on the cause, Kaul said, in general, aviation safety in Nepal should be a concern. Many foreign tourists don’t realize this, he added, assuming the landlocked mountain nation maintains the same standards they enjoy at home.
“I’m not sure Nepal has the resources to invest or the technical ability within the government to ensure the system is safe,” he said. “Those who use mountain flights take for granted that the airline and the system are safe.”
Special correspondent Bhandari reported from Katmandu and Times staff writer Magnier from New Delhi.