RNAC takes to the skies

The way Royal Nepal Airlines (RNAC) transformed travelling in Nepal can be understood from the fact that as recently as 1971, before a highway was built, Kathmandu to Pokhara was a 12-day trek. RNAC covered the same distance in 30 minutes. The situation can be imagined in 1958, when RNAC was born. You walked for weeks to get anywhere – endless mountains, terrifying rivers and no roads. RNAC provided the answer by flying over them. RNAC’s motives have not changed from those early days – slashing time and space barriers, connecting the length and breadth of the country, flying to places you never heard of.

The national flag carrier began with a single Dakota aircraft. The DC-3 linked Kathmandu with the three plains towns of Biratnagar, Bhairahawa and Simara and Pokhara in the mid-western hills. The sight of the Dakota on the grassy airfields was a wonder, and villagers who had not even seen a motor car, swarmed to have a closer look at the metal bird. Used to seeing porters hauling everything, including motor cars, on their backs, it amazed them to see the plane carrying such heavy loads besides passengers.

By 1963, RNAC was flying to Bhadrapur in the easternmost corner and Dhangadhi in the far west. The 1960s saw RNAC experimenting with a number of aircraft, ranging from the Swiss-made Pilatus Porter and the Russian-built MI 4 helicopter to the Chinese-built Fong Shu Harvester aircraft designed on the Russian AN-2 model. However, it was the World War II veteran, the DC-3, that would prove its mettle in the Nepalese skies. The airline flew a total of 13 Dakotas -both on internal and external routes – before they were phased out in 1973. The non-pressurized, piston-engine aircraft with its primitive navigational equipment was anything but comfortable, though. Passengers recall how in the early days of flying they had to sit facing each other with goods piled up high along the aisle. A sturdy plane it was, as it proved itself in linking up at least 10 points within the country by the late 60s. But opening up the mountainous interior with little flat space for a long runway demanded a more suitable aircraft. The Dakota was also incapable of climbing more than 2,000 m.

In the Canadian-built Twin Otter aircraft, RNAC found the answer. Not only could the 19-seater turbo prop fly twice as high as the Dakota, it could also land and take off on airstrips as short as 350 m. Its induction into the airline’s fleet, which coincided with the decision to phase out the Dakotas, paved the way for the phenomenal construction of STOL (short take-off and landing) airfields in the country. Almost custom-built for Nepal’s rugged terrain, the Twin Otter continues to rule the Nepalese skies even 30 years after it was first inducted.

Royal Nepal Airlines today flies to 34 domestic destinations, playing a vital role in connecting far-flung places in roadless Nepal. Internationally, RNAC flies to 13 destinations. Initially limited to a few key cities in the region, its plunge into the jet age with the induction of a Boeing 727 in 1972 suddenly made it possible to link up destinations beyond the subcontinent.

And in a landmark event in international aviation, an RNAC Boeing 727 made the world’s first trans-Himalayan flight in 1976, flying from Kathmandu to Chengdu. The plane carried Their late Majesties King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya on their State Visit to China. The Boeing 757 joined the fleet in the late 80s, and has since been the backbone of RNAC’s international operations.